In February 1948, John Cage gave a lecture at an arts conference at Vassar College in which he detailed his artistic development. Somewhere in the midst of the address, he casually mentioned that, on the suggestion of a friend, he had “two years ago start[ed] writing 20 short Sonatas and Interludes which I have not yet finished.”
The pieces, he added, “have all been written in my new apartment on the East River in Lower Manhattan which turns its back to the city and looks to the water and the sky.”
It was a remarkably succinct precis of what would become one of Cage’s most venerated works, the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. The image of Cage’s composing space as a refuge from the tumult and commotion of New York, allowing the composer to seek a deeper and more private beauty, perfectly captures the music’s mysterious aura. That rarefied character made it perhaps the closest to a canonical work in Cage’s oeuvre, admired even by those who find Cage’s later, chance-based music something akin to a sham. It is, in the words of Cage scholar James Pritchett, “a big piece with a quiet voice.”
Last year, pianist Conor Hanick and director Zack Winokur found an innovative way to present the Sonatas and Interludes at the American Modern Opera Company’s Run AMOC! Festival. Seated at a lidless piano in The Ex, the American Repertory Theater’s small black box venue, with the audience surrounding him, Hanick played Cage’s music while a subtle play of lighting (designed by Winokur, AMOC’s co-artistic director) unfolded in the room. Choreographer Julia Eichten added an energetic dance component to the first interlude, performed largely in shadows. It was, according to the New York Times critic David Allen, “probably the best instrumental concert I have seen all year by virtue of its rethinking of the basics of what a recital might be.”
“We all felt there was a mystical quality about the piece we wanted to explore in different ways,” said Hanick, who will reprise “Cage” at this year’s Run AMOC! “It’s such a unique listening experience that I wanted the actual concertgoing act to be similar.”
The Sonatas and Interludes are of central importance to Hanick, who first performed them in 2013 and has done so almost every season since. “It feels like a piece I’ve always known,” he said via phone recently from his home in New York City. “The whole thing sounds like a whisper. There are these more resonant and clangorous moments, but I think at its heart, it’s soliloquy, or a monologue, really, that is delivered in undertones.”
The irony of the piece, Hanick pointed out, is that music of such otherworldly delicacy is created using the crudest of materials — screws, nuts, and bolts made of metal and rubber, all lodged in the piano strings in an arrangement that Cage lays out in the score with almost obsessive detail. (Preparing a piano for performance in this way takes around two to three hours.)
Yet Hanick found in earlier performances that following Cage’s directions to the letter produced notably unsatisfying results. “You’re measuring out three-and-a-half inches, you’re using a furniture bolt between the first and second strings on [the note] A, you screw in the bolt, and it just sounds like a dead nothing,” he said. “The note has no profile, it doesn’t have a color, it just sounds like metal in a piano.
“It can’t be that’s what he meant,” Hanick continued. “It’s just inconceivable to me that he wanted the piece to sound that way.” Once Hanick gave himself permission to slightly alter Cage’s preparation instructions, “you just start creating these overtones and this other level of harmonicity with the instrument. And I think once that kind of becomes what you’re looking for, you’re getting more to the beauty of the piece.”
Last year’s AMOC production opened new dimensions of the Sonatas and Interludes for Hanick as well as for the audience. On one level, it allowed him to illuminate musical relationships and connections among the pieces in an unobtrusive way. But it also deepened the entire performative experience. “It draws the listener in when that’s what’s required, and allows the listener to pan out when that’s required,” he explained. “When you’re sitting playing two or three sonatas in a row and the only light in the entire space is a very dim spotlight on the keyboard, it puts you in a different zone. There’s no escaping what is going on in that very small space.
“The way that it’s presented partly makes me play better,” he added, “but it also creates this really intense cocoon for listening intently, which this piece really deserves.”
Presented by the Run AMOC! Festival. At The Ex, American Repertory Theater. Dec. 13-14, 6:30 p.m. $25-35, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org