Before diving into a performance of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, New York pianist Marc Peloquin explained a bit of the background behind the sounds we were about to hear. As the story goes, John Cage was commissioned to write a dance piece in 1938, and was accustomed to working with different combinations of percussion instruments for these sorts of works. However, due to the hall’s limited space, this time he was told to compose for grand piano and nothing else. Obviously unsatisfied with these instructions, Cage “prepared” the piano by placing objects – screws, bolts, bits of plastic, and so on – in the strings. This way, a single pianist could produce the sounds of an entire percussion ensemble, even in the cramped space.

John Cage
John Cage

The concept of performance space became very relevant during Dr Peloquin’s performance, which took place at Brooklyn Ferry Landing’s Bargemusic. While resting in the harbor, the barge rocks up and down and back and forth to a varying rhythm that depends on the strength of the wind and waves. The faint scent of sea air permeates the space, and the glittering lights of Manhattan can be glimpsed through the window behind the stage. Although the occasional seasickness or mild discomfort isn’t ideal for every concert, I have a feeling Cage would have enjoyed the unpredictable setting. When a concert hall is stripped of certain aspects of formality, there is less pressure to listen to or think about the music in a particular way.

The music, a product of one of Cage’s artistic crises, is beautiful in its playfulness and unexpectedness. Meant to convey the eight emotions of the rasa tradition, the concept arose from Cage’s growing interest in Indian music and philosophy throughout the 1940s. Later on, Cage would remove the troublesome idea of “communication” from his works by composing through chance methods. But this collection of 20 pieces is highly expressive, not only of Indian aesthetics but of Cage’s one-of-a-kind, almost magical personality.

Dr Peloquin’s interpretation was imbued with enough personality to be engaging and believable, but unassuming enough to let the music speak for itself. The work truly sounded like a duet for piano and percussion, with low, hollow clangs disrupting the rippling melodies of the upper register. Miniature scales chased each other across the keyboard, with metallic clunks interjecting at unlikely moments. Delicate trills were countered by blended chords consisting of familiar and unfamiliar harmonies. Usage of the pedals not only bled the notes together but also affected the way the hammers struck the prepared strings, contributing an even greater variety of timbre.

The gaps and silences between notes and movements were just as integral to the experience as the sounds I’ve just described. Occasionally Dr Peloquin stopped to rearrange the trinkets inside the piano, but for the most part he played straight through the collection, with only brief pauses between the pieces. The symmetrical structure of the work therefore coalesced into a single hour-long dialogue between the hammers of the piano and the strings, whether altered or not, that they were striking. The lively opening sonatas trailed fluidly into the first interlude, and from there we were swept into Cage’s colorful composition, never mind the waves sloshing against the sides of the barge. The more pensive, questioning repetitions of Sonatas XIV and XV (“Gemini”) transitioned likewise as smoothly into the final sonata, childlike and peaceful in its conclusion.

For his encore, Dr Peloquin reminded us of the strangeness of the instrument we had accustomed ourselves to by treating us to a whimsical rendition of Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 16 in C major, K.545. The commonplace tune sounded suddenly curious, even preposterous, as the clangs and clunks juxtaposed themselves among traditional chord progressions and an Alberti bass. This prepared piano music was meant to communicate a certain sense of tranquility, despite Cage’s artistic turmoil, not to mention the hours of piano preparation each performance requires. But I was reminded during the humorous encore of a quote from Cage’s book Silence: “...everything, a pair of socks, is appropriate, appropriate to poetry, a poetry of infinite possibilities.” The clever close to the evening ensured that everybody had a smile on their face as they stepped back onto solid ground.