CAMBRIDGE - In his centennial year, John Cage has come into his own, at least at MIT: A standing-room-only crowd packed Killian Hall on Monday for a performance of Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes’’ by pianist Vicky Chow.
The 70-minute cycle - 16 sonatas interspersed with four interludes - was Cage’s first major masterpiece, one of the most singular piano works of the modern era. Composed between 1946 and 1948, “Sonatas and Interludes’’ was Cage’s largest essay for his own invention: the prepared piano. The instrument’s strings must be doctored with bolts and metal and bits of rubber to conjure everything from bass drums to tuned gongs to faraway bells.
Cage arranges such magically alienated sounds into repetitive forms, eccentric phrase lengths balanced into calm symmetries. Modernist accents - Sonata VI’s spare opening recalled the early atonal explorations of Cage’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, while Sonata VII seemed to breathe a Bartók-like air - give way to more equable, Indian-inspired loops. The paired Sonatas XIV-XV foreshadow minimalism in their gently rolling patterns.
The construction of “Sonatas and Interludes’’ is intricate; most movements map numerical proportions onto various levels of the music with nested-box precision. But its effect is almost perambulatory, the music seeming to circle back only to strike out in a different direction.
It was an effect amplified by the confidently framed performance, which emphasized the gentle and the delicate. Chow (also the pianist for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the new-music ensemble currently in residence at MIT) let repeated phrases fade and draw out slightly, giving the impression of wandering through the rooms of a musical house. Cage’s more grooving, gamelan-like passages eased into the beat rather than driving it forward. Chow put the music’s lingering resonance and stillness on equal footing with the exotic, percussive attacks.
“Sonatas and Interludes’’ feels composed in a traditional way, but aiming more for meditation and tranquillity than drama and catharsis. (Only Sonata XII, with its booming bass, approaches the heroic territory that defined so much 19th-century piano repertoire.) One could hear the connection between the careful craft of “Sonatas and Interludes’’ and the amicable anarchy of the more radical Cage waiting in the wings.
Within a few years, Cage would have fully embraced chance and silence, expanding the definition of music to include provocative questions about its very nature. Chow’s playing showed that the contemplation was there all along.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.