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Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes

Posted By: Neotonicizer

Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/13/16 12:08 AM

I'm sure there are some of you who are interested in performing John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes, or perhaps already have. I created a guide for pianists to arrive at a better-prepared piano by discussing little-known historical documents and practices of prepared pianists.

Did you know that John Cage made kits of preparations for the Sonatas and Interludes and sold them through a new music journal published by Henry Cowell? These kits contained 45 envelopes, one for each note of the preparations, that held the hardware he used for his preparations. Did you know that Cage created a document for performers in 1949, after the publication of the Sonatas and Interludes, that further detailed his preparation process and intentions?

Read more... http://www.seattlepianoteacher.com/...natas-and-interludes-for-prepared-piano/
Posted By: RealPlayer

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/15/16 05:12 AM

Thanks for that very cool page full of information and resources! I wish I'd had all those options when I learned the piece.

When I learned Sonatas and Interludes in the 1970s, it was for a performance celebrating John Cage, and Cage was there to help me prepare the piano. He actually selected the materials too, from what I had available, and I later put them all in separate envelopes for future performances. But he loved the performance, and he later invited me to tour as one of the musicians with Merce Cunningham.

I haven't played it in decades, partly because of all the effort involved in preparation.
Posted By: Nikolas

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/15/16 05:42 AM

Great info! Thanks!

Now onto something else, but maybe worth bearing in mind (for any composer reading this)

Originally Posted by RealPlayer

I haven't played it in decades, partly because of all the effort involved in preparation...
... and this is exactly the problem with a lot of contemporary works. I've had this wonderful ideas to use different software, and different machines on the piano, only to realize that ultimately this is a sure way to get one (1) and only that performance of the work.

Unfortunately, unless the preparation of the piano is rather minimal (eg. throw a heavy book on the low part of the keyboard) then this turns against its popularity (at least a little bit).
Posted By: BDB

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/15/16 05:54 AM

Plus the possibility of damaging the piano tends to keep people from performing prepared piano pieces. Or something that requires a specific piano. Cowell's The Banshee calls for a piano with 26 bass strings, which leaves out most concert grands.
Posted By: Neotonicizer

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/15/16 05:52 PM

Originally Posted by RealPlayer
Thanks for that very cool page full of information and resources! I wish I'd had all those options when I learned the piece.


Glad to do it. That's just the thing, a single page with lots of resources for someone preparing the piano didn't really exist until I put this together. The information was out there, but there were pieces of useful information scattered all over the web or lost in bigger articles about broader topics.

Originally Posted by RealPlayer
When I learned Sonatas and Interludes in the 1970s, it was for a performance celebrating John Cage, and Cage was there to help me prepare the piano. He actually selected the materials too, from what I had available, and I later put them all in separate envelopes for future performances. But he loved the performance, and he later invited me to tour as one of the musicians with Merce Cunningham.


That's really great to hear. I envy you. Have you shared more details about this before? What kind of piano did you prepare? Did he talk you through the process? If so, how did he make decisions on the material? Basically, please share your Cage story; they are usually full of pretty great quotes!

Originally Posted by RealPlayer
I haven't played it in decades, partly because of all the effort involved in preparation.


I find the problem to be people in charge of the concert hall. I enjoy the preparation process, but it is a tough sell to someone who doesn't know the work. They don't understand the process is benign. I had the manager of a Steinway gallery really excited that I wanted to perform a recital there, had the dates basically booked, started telling him about preparing the piano, and he laughed in my face and turned around and walked away. So I played Beethoven.

Originally Posted by BDB
Plus the possibility of damaging the piano tends to keep people from performing prepared piano pieces.


You're right that it tends to keep people away, but it isn't really justified. This fear will unfortunately probably never go away. Considering all the time it takes to learn how to play the piano, learning how to properly prepare the piano is minuscule. You wouldn't perform surgery on someone without doing your homework, so don't perform surgery on a $50,000 piano without doing it either. Again though, the performer can get over this fear, but the people in charge of the recital halls probably won't.
Posted By: prout

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/15/16 06:00 PM

Sticking metal objects between the strings can nick the strings and deform the dampers. The worst thing though, is wiping your sweaty, greasy fingers on the strings, especially the wound strings. Great way to kill a string.

People in charge of concert pianos are right to refuse to allow such ignorant abuse to a quality instrument. Bring in a $100 upright.

Edit: At our recital hall our Yamaha S6 was abused in this manner. Without telling the management, he played a portion of the recital with his ungloved left hand wiping the strings 'in an etherial fashion" he said afterwords, unaware of the damage he was causing.
Posted By: Neotonicizer

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/15/16 06:25 PM

And there you have it. This is the problem in attitude. Instead of looking at ways the piano can be damaged, perhaps you could research ways of preparing the piano in a benign manner. "Ignorant abuse" is only the case if you don't do the research. Use brass— it's softer than steel. Sonatas and Interludes do not ask for metal on the copper. Press the damper pedal down when you open the strings. You won't ruin the dampers.

Now your wiping the inside of the piano technique may be the case, I don't know. But that's not what the prepared piano is.
Posted By: terminaldegree

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/16/16 06:30 PM

Neotonicizer,

What are your piano technical credentials?

I have played and taught students to play and prepare these pieces, using other extant references and my own experience. I do worry about the additional side bearing load on the treble bridge pins in particular, even when done carefully (I typically open the strings with a flathead screwdriver while the damper pedal is depressed, and place the item gently), and notice the piano is knocked out of tune to some extent when the preparations are undone...which I'm hoping is the extent of any "damage" I've inflicted.

However, I've never performed (or been allowed to perform, or advocated to perform) these pieces on the best available concert piano in a hall. Typically, another instrument (in most cases, an older 7 or 9 footer, retired from concert service) can be made available for this work with enough advance notice.

Although I fully understand the composer's intention regarding the una corda, and the limitation presented by the predominating amount of shift on typical grand pianos, I believe your advice is reckless in a concert setting (particularly one of any prestige) and will result in performers being banned from the spaces either on the spot, or for future performances. Just ask the piano tech to set up the una corda shift the way you want, again in advance.

In addition to the software solutions you mention at the end of your blog, I believe there's another product from IRCAM that may also be of use, at least I remember having a conversation with one of my composition students (with an interest in prepared piano/extended techniques) about that a few years back.
Posted By: Neotonicizer

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/16/16 07:51 PM

Originally Posted by terminaldegree
Neotonicizer,

What are your piano technical credentials?


I'm not sure what you're asking. I've prepared several pianos side-by-side with a technician (guild member). I also have a M.M. in piano performance.

Originally Posted by terminaldegree
I have played and taught students to play and prepare these pieces, using other extant references and my own experience. I do worry about the additional side bearing load on the treble bridge pins in particular, even when done carefully (I typically open the strings with a flathead screwdriver while the damper pedal is depressed, and place the item gently), and notice the piano is knocked out of tune to some extent when the preparations are undone...which I'm hoping is the extent of any "damage" I've inflicted.


I know what you mean. I use much smaller screws for these higher notes. There is so much tension on those upper strings that you can't "open" them up much. You can use smaller diameter brass screws and open them up just enough to get the threading going and do a half a turn on the screw. Basically, if you don't have the right hardware size, you can knock it out of tune by forcing these in this part of the piano. I used to use a screwdriver, but I made a wooden "screwdriver" by carving a wooden handle. I feel better about using wood.

Originally Posted by terminaldegree
However, I've never performed (or been allowed to perform, or advocated to perform) these pieces on the best available concert piano in a hall. Typically, another instrument (in most cases, an older 7 or 9 footer, retired from concert service) can be made available for this work with enough advance notice.


Yes, I think it is unrealistic to expect to perform these in a prestigious hall. Not for the fear of damaging the piano, but filling seats in the audience. A 9-foot isn't even the ideal piano to use. It's best to use a mid-sized piano, for many reasons. But someone else's comments about using a $100 upright is just clueless.

Originally Posted by terminaldegree
Although I fully understand the composer's intention regarding the una corda, and the limitation presented by the predominating amount of shift on typical grand pianos, I believe your advice is reckless in a concert setting (particularly one of any prestige) and will result in performers being banned from the spaces either on the spot, or for future performances. Just ask the piano tech to set up the una corda shift the way you want, again in advance.


Perhaps I was misleading here. Thanks. It is best to get a tech to adjust this in advance—if you can. But I don't understand how extending the pedal rod with a couple pieces of rubber is reckless. Let me know? Some pianos have pedal rods that can extend by screwing in and out a little. Placing a 1/4"-1/2" of rubber is the same thing. I don't understand the concern.
Posted By: Neotonicizer

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/16/16 07:59 PM

Also, I should mention that benign preparation techniques is not the focus of my article and very little of the guide even mentions this practice. It is about preparing the piano for the Sonatas and Interludes in hopes to get closer to Cage's intentions by focussing on historical documents and original preparation material.
Posted By: mrenaud

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/16/16 08:01 PM

A small anecdote (I think I might have posted it before, but here we go):

When I was studying at the Music Academy of Basel, one day we had Steffen Schleiermacher as a guest, a composer and pianist, and he often plays Cage (as he did in a concert the day before, though no prepared piano; he played Music of Changes, I believe, and a couple of other pieces), and he told us a story about a concert he gave in some small town in Germany.

He was going to play some pieces for prepared piano by Cage, but there was no suitable piano available, so he wrote to Steinway Berlin and asked them to provide him a grand piano; not the best one they had, because he was going to prepare it, but a sturdy one that could handle it. The reply he got went something like this:

Dear Mr Schleiermacher,
Of course we will provide you the best piano we have. After all, a well-done preparation is less harmful to the instrument than a Rachmaninov concerto.


We asked him if we could have a copy of that letter, but unfortunately he didn't have it anymore.
Posted By: Neotonicizer

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/17/16 07:02 PM

Originally Posted by mrenaud


Dear Mr Schleiermacher,
Of course we will provide you the best piano we have. After all, a well-done preparation is less harmful to the instrument than a Rachmaninov concerto.



That's great! Thanks for sharing that.
Posted By: RealPlayer

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/17/16 08:04 PM

Originally Posted by Nikolas


Originally Posted by RealPlayer

I haven't played it in decades, partly because of all the effort involved in preparation...
... and this is exactly the problem with a lot of contemporary works. I've had this wonderful ideas to use different software, and different machines on the piano, only to realize that ultimately this is a sure way to get one (1) and only that performance of the work.

Unfortunately, unless the preparation of the piano is rather minimal (eg. throw a heavy book on the low part of the keyboard) then this turns against its popularity (at least a little bit).

On the subject of time and effort, one NY pianist wrote in an online article that, when hired for ensemble concerts, he would charge extra for "special effects." As in, "If you expect me to prepare 20 notes, it will cost you $X extra; if you want harmonics all over the place, it will be $X extra," etc. I think it may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it speaks to a real frustration level.
Posted By: hreichgott

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/18/16 04:00 PM

I'm sure I would never attempt this without being side-by-side with the recital hall's own technician.
I must say I enjoyed Cage's instructions. Particularly this
Quote
HAVE FREE FROM TWO TO EIGHT HOURS, AND PUT YOURSELF IN A FRAME OF MIND CONDUCIVE TO THE OVERCOMING OF OBSTACLES WITH PATIENCE.

Sounds like practice time wink
Posted By: Tim Adrianson

Re: Performer's guide to Sonatas and Interludes - 10/18/16 05:10 PM

I remember hearing the Cage piece about 50 years ago, when I was an undergrad at UW-Madison. If I recall, the prepared piano was an upright; and I do remember being very pleasantly surprised how musical and accessible the selected pieces were: thoroughly original and charming, very Asian-sounding. It was Cage when he was approaching composition more conventionally -- far more to my personal taste; I never understood what he was doing afterward. But then, I always liked Andrew Wyeth better than Jackson Pollock, too!
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