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Sunday, June 23, 2002

A Piano Piece's Nuts and Bolts
For James Tenney, learning to play a John Cage work as it was intended was a long, strange trip that included one to the hardware store.


James Tenney and his painstakingly prepared piano, which will be put to the test Friday and Saturday in concerts honoring composer John Cage.

On a spring evening in 1951, a budding 16-year-old pianist with an interest in engineering went to hear John Cage play one of his most famous pieces, the "Sonatas and Interludes" for prepared piano, at the Women's Club Auditorium in Denver.

"The concert blew me away," James Tenney says, seated at a prepared piano in his studio at CalArts, as he demonstrates the exquisite clinks, plinks and thuds that Cage produced by wedging bolts or bits of rubber or plastic between the strings of the piano.

In fact, that concert helped propel Tenney, one of America's most important experimental composers, into a career that has included pioneering work in computer music and collaborations with Cage. Tenney is also a formidable pianist. But for half a century, the one work that started it all, although neither technically nor technologically difficult, eluded him.

In April, almost exactly 51 years from the date he attended Cage's recital, Tenney finally played the "Sonatas and Interludes" at CalArts, and Friday he will repeat it at the Schindler House in West Hollywood. It's part of a two-evening exploration of Cage's early work, marking the 90th anniversary of Cage's birth and the 10th of his death, both of which are this summer.

"Sonatas and Interludes" consists of 16 sonatas in simple forms reminiscent of the Baroque keyboard works of Domenico Scarlatti, with four freer interludes, and it lasts around 70 minutes. The first performance of the complete set was by Maro Ajemian at Carnegie Recital Hall (now the Weill Recital Hall) in New York in 1949. It was not controversial. In the New York Times review the next day, Ross Parmenter described the evening as a grand occasion with noted painters, writers and musicians in the audience, including actor Burgess Meredith and ballerina Vera Zorina. The critic concluded, "It left one with the feeling that Mr. Cage is one of the country's finest composers and that his invention has now been vindicated musically."

The musical establishment and the New York Times would soon change their tune about Cage, as he changed his. Just around the corner was his enthusiastic decision to compose using chance operations, to embrace the idea of indeterminacy in music (sometimes using graphic notation that allows the players complete freedom in the choice of pitches and rhythms) and to become besotted with silence. The piece, "4'33,"" during which no music is performed, had its premiere 31/2 years after "Sonatas and Interludes." Cage would continue to write an enormous amount of music up to his death in 1992, some of it grander, more ambitious, more impressive and more groundbreaking than "Sonatas and Interludes," and all of it less conventional.

But if "Sonatas and Interludes" stands as Cage's one conventional masterpiece, it is nevertheless an underground masterpiece. There have been about 25 recordings of it, yet most are by modern music specialists on small independent or obscure labels. Hearing a prepared piano live is still a rare and exotic adventure.

Tenney says that despite having given notable performances of Ives' monstrously difficult "Concord" Sonata and working with advanced technology, the prepared piano long intimidated him. That is what prevented him from playing "Sonatas and Interludes" all those years. "You know, you've got to go through something very unfamiliar before you can get down to hearing the piece," he says. "And it commandeers the piano, you can't play anything else on it. So you've got to have a piano that you can devote to this for as long as it takes to learn it."

As a musician and theorist with a busy career--composer, teacher, founder of the Tone Roads ensemble in New York in the 1960s, member of the original Philip Glass and Steve Reich ensembles--Tenney has had other things to do. But last fall, when Tenney, who now teaches composition at CalArts, decided to use the academic year to produce a student Cage festival, he decided that it was also time for him to face the prepared piano.

With the score to "Sonatas and Interludes," Cage provides a table of preparations. Forty-five of the piano's 88 notes are altered, and Cage lists the types of hardware to be used and indicates in inches where they are to be placed along the two or three strings that create most piano notes. In a 1949 interview, Cage said that preparing the piano accomplishes four things: It quiets the note, changes its timbre, splits it into two or three sounds, and shortens its duration. He then emphasized that the change must be complete. Otherwise, "like a well-known person appearing in costume, there's something clownish about it."

Yet clownish dangers lurk in Cage's table of preparations. The materials--small, medium and large screws, rubber, eraser, plastic--are hardly precise. And the measurements will vary from piano to piano. Cage does not specify the size or model of the instrument. What to do?

"I first studied the chart," Tenney explains. "I counted how many screws, I counted how many medium bolts, how many large bolts, etc. Then I went to the hardware store, bought some hardware, brought it back and started trying to use it. I went back to the store several times when I found that screws wouldn't stay in, because the diameter wasn't large enough.

"Eventually I got the feeling that a certain bolt is OK, but the sound would be more interesting if it were a heavier one."

In the end, Tenney decided that where, say, Cage indicated a screw, a 1-inch or three-quarter-inch bolt worked best. Cage distinguishes between furniture bolts and large bolts, but Tenney believes that they were the same thing, that it was the larger weight that was wanted. As for the eraser: "John specified American Pencil Co. eraser No. 346, but of course I never could find that, so I went to Staples and got what looked like the kind of eraser that I remembered as a kid. And that's what gives you this wonderful sound down in the bass. I did a lot of experimenting."

Late in life, Cage said that he thought the original piano on which he made his measurements was a Steinway "O," a 5-foot-10 grand popular in the 1940s, but Cage's memory was not always reliable. Tenney's ear tells him that the measurements work best based on the dimensions of a 7-foot instrument. His ear and the demands of the music have become the ultimate arbiter.

As an example, he points to the seven-note chord that begins the piece. It is repeated twice in the first measure. Six of the notes are razor-sharp staccato attacks, but a D above middle C, according to the score, must be sustained through two beats.

"The problem is," Tenney says, playing the chord over and over, "the pitch is so dampened by a piece of plastic that you can barely hear anything afterwards." His solution for the plastic strip was to use the smallest piece he could cut from his Vons card. It proved just the thing to keep that D ringing a little longer. After the demonstration, I went home and listened to that opening chord on 18 recordings. None was as successful as Tenney in getting the effect Cage asks for.

Tenney had had any number of opportunities to talk to Cage about how to go about the preparations. In the 1960s, he performed Cage's music often and got to know the composer well. For a performance of "Atlas Eclipticalis" that Leonard Bernstein presented with the New York Philharmonic, Cage invited Tenney to help him with the live electronic mixing of the amplified orchestra.

But Tenney explains that his reason for never bringing up the "Sonatas and Interludes" went back to his first meeting with composer. Too shy to go up and introduce himself to Cage at the Denver performance, Tenney finally met Cage a few years later in New York. In 1954, Tenney enrolled as a piano student at the Juilliard School, where his roommate was experimental filmmaker Stan Brackhage. "It was Stan who got in touch with Cage," Tenney says, "because he had made a film using a recording of some of the 'Sonatas and Interludes' as music for it. He wanted Cage's permission, so he called him up and arranged a meeting, and I tagged along.

"It was at a bar, and Cage bought us a beer. The meeting was very quick, maybe only 10 minutes. I got the sense that he was very busy. And you know what he said about the permission? He said, 'I'm not interested in that music anymore, you can do what you want with it.' So I never brought it up with him." When Tenney first played "Sonatas and Interludes" on April 12 in the intimate Roy O. Disney Concert Hall at CalArts, the performance was a revelation. Partly that was due to Tenney's careful preparations, which gave the sound a kind of three-dimensional aspect that made it fresher and more alive than ever.

The prepared piano has often been compared with a one-man gamelan, an Indonesian orchestra of colorfully metallic gongs and bells. It is still a piano, because nearly half of the pitches remain unchanged, but others lose specific pitch as they are transformed into percussion sounds. A quick scale up and down the keyboard is peculiar--here a pitch, there a plink. For once, tinkling the keyboard really means something.

But the enchanted sound of Tenney's performance was also the result of many other decisions that must go into performing "Sonatas and Interludes." The pieces do not require a world-class technique, but they are rhythmically subtle, and call for clarity, grace and luminous transparency.

At the time of the work's premiere, Cage explained that the individual pieces were meant to express the "permanent emotions" of the Hindu tradition: "the heroic, the erotic, the wondrous, the mirthful, sorrow, fear, anger and the odious, and their common tendency towards tranquillity."

Still, one-to-one correlations between the music and the emotions are not obvious. A few years earlier, Cage had poured his heart out in a short suite for prepared piano, "The Perilous Night," which was intended to express "the loneliness and terror that comes to one when love becomes unhappy." But when a critic described the last movement as "a woodpecker in a church belfry," he concluded that something was very wrong with the whole notion of trying to express feelings through music.

Tenney says he finds it ironic that in the later, essentially abstract series of pieces, Cage would talk about specific emotions. "My sense is that many of the pieces throughout the 'Sonatas and Interludes' are very tranquil, and that maybe those nine emotions are something distributed more or less broadly throughout the whole set."

In Tenney's playing, the emotions are fleeting; they come of the moment and disappear just as quickly. But this happens to be a byproduct of a mathematical analysis of the score's intricate rhythmic structure. Cage's curiously irregular phrase lengths led Tenney to produce equally curious articulations, taking breaths, or breaks, in untraditional places.

Tenney also has a theory about why Cage would tie himself to something so mundane as the simple Baroque sonata form. He sees the influence of Schoenberg, with whom Cage studied for two years. "Schoenberg's emphasis was on comprehensibility," Tenney says, "and I think Cage was very concerned to put these new sounds in a formal structure that would be very easy to grasp on first hearing."

That comprehensibility in early works, Tenney found, was readily apparent to his CalArts students. There are indeterminate works that can still be a big challenge, and some of the late pieces are almost impossibly virtuosic.

"But with the earlier work, it was duck soup," he contends. "There really is no problem, and I didn't even need to coach some of the students."

Older musicians, though, sometimes have to overcome their instincts. Tenney found he had to remind faculty violinist Mark Menzies (who will perform Cage's Satie-esque Nocturne with Tenney this weekend) to play without vibrato to achieve the unmodulated sound Cage was after. There could be a different sort of problem in bringing these sounds, especially the magical ones of the prepared piano, to the Schindler House.

There are historical reasons for using the venue to perform Cage. He stayed for nine days late in 1932 in one of the apartments that German émigré architect Rudolf Schindler rented out to young artists. Later, Cage and composer Henry Cowell produced a few concerts in the garden. But that was before the kind of ambient noise that now is pervasive in West Hollywood.

Tenney's solution will be to perform "4'33"" before "Sonatas and Interludes." "I really want to get into listening to the sounds that otherwise might be thought of as interference and absorb them so that we become part of that sound environment," he explains. (Playing it will also commemorate a third Cage anniversary this summer: "4'33"" had its premiere 50 year ago in Woodstock, N.Y.)

But Tenney probably needn't worry too much. A well-prepared piano, well played, has a way of getting through to a listener whatever the acoustic restraints. In 1947, Maro Ajemian, for whom "Sonatas and Interludes" was written, recorded the prepared piano solos from Cage's "Amores." One evening that summer, folk legend Woody Guthrie wrote a fan letter to the Disc Co. of America, as he listened to the scratchy 78 rpm disc. "I need something like this oddstriking music," he began in the postscript, "to match the things I feel in my soul tonight." (The singer also wrote that that morning, his wife, Marjorie, had "given birth to a big 7-pound boy" --Arlo.)

"So let me say my thanks one more time to you, Maro," he concluded, "for recording up and down for me all of this virgin unsettled and wild wide open sounding dancy music there on the keys of your big piano."
* * *
Early works by John Cage, with James Tenney, Friday, and Tenney and guests, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Schindler House, 835 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood. $15. (323) 651-1510.

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic.

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