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Invisible Resonances

New York
Crypt, Church of the Intercession
09/05/2023 -  
John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes
Adam Tendler (Pianist)

A. Tendler/J. Cage

Art is anything you can get away with.

Until I die, there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.
John Cage

By sheer–astral?–coincidence, Adam Tendler’s luminous performance of John Cage’s complete Sonatas and Interludes last night will have a reflection next week when Taka Kigawa plays Győrgy Ligeti’s complete Etudes at Poisson Rouge.

Ligeti, an admirer of Cage, was a mediocre pianist–so his Etudes bust open every possible computation of the instrument. As if to say, “Okay I can’t play this stuff. Let’s see how good you are.”

John Cage took another route in this hour‑long work for “prepared piano.” (More on that later.) He simply eschewed piano as a lyrical and limited instrument. Instead, he reverted to the literal character of piano as percussion instrument. Not a banging percussion, but one with seemingly endless color, resonance and–as mentioned before–luminosity.

By “preparing” half the piano with screws, bolt, plastics, nuts and perhaps chewing gum between each key, Cage was able to turn mere piano music into 88 different sounds and combination of sounds.

Andrew Ousley, the creator, producer and evil genius behind “Death of Classical” said that it might have taken Mr. Tendler “several days” to concoct his piano to John Cage’s original algorhythmic dimensions. And while that may have been an exaggeration, Mr. Tendler, playing the entire evening by memory, is the consummate Cage‑style of this aural poetry.

All this is background to the actual sounds produced in the Gothic‑style crypt in the Church of the Intersession. On the lowest level, it was “hypnotic” and one could imagine a group of California Stoners weaving and murmuring to the music.

Yet this was hardly the “purpose”. (I hate that word.). Cage had no intention of “lulling” his audience. And while nobody but Mr. Tendler could differentiate the different sonatas and interludes (especially since the sonatas were grouped together), the accumulation of sounds, the differences and combination and surprises of sounds was magnetic enough.

One could easily compare these sounds to those of a Balinese gamelan, the sounds which transfixed Debussy and Ravel and Cage himself. The gamelan evenings I spent in east Bali were lovely, but the makeup was simple. A panoply of bass drums, bass gongs, treble gongs, treble bells, bass bells, all of them playing two‑hour‑long variations on a single motif.

Mr. Tendler’s sounds were more than similar. True, the Cage composition expressed the “high” notes. In fact, the sharp bass notes came as almost an interruption. But “high” meant here the widest variety of tones imaginable. It was obvious that certain single notes captured two or three strings inside the piano. How he did this was his secret.

Also, unlike the gamelan, Cage wrote endless motifs, almost melodies. Not Schubert or Paul Simon melodies by any means, but emotional rainbow‑runs up and down the keyboard, five- or six‑note themes which appeared and disappeared. John Cage was entranced with sound‑as‑sound, but he never ever turned the sounds into chants or ragas. He allowed the registers to play with each other. And as soon as the play became tiresome (Two measures? Three measures?), he would turn to something new.

Still, for the first 15 minutes, I felt that Cage had denied any contrapuntal complexity. And boy! Was I wrong!

Twofold wrong. First the nails, pins etc etc created their own resonance. Mr. Tendler didn’t need his pedal, because the sounds rang out, continued intercepting each other, coming back and giving a contrapuntal art which old J.S. Bach would have admired.

Second, the venue, the crypts of the Church provided a resonance of the original piano resonance!! At other concerts, this is a shortcoming. John Cage though, would have loved the aural dimension upon dimension upon dimension.

I have read that every performance or recording of Sonatas and Interludes varies, by the piano preparation and the temperament of the performer. I confess to not having had the slightest interest in “preparing” for my initial hearing. Mr. Tendler made the music his own. His fluidity, and his obvious joy created a singular astonishment.

Harry Rolnick



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