It is perhaps surprising that music so influenced by Eastern aesthetic precepts should have had such a typically ‘Western’ reception history. This is close to the thirtieth interpretation of the complete Sonatas and Interludes committed to disc – a remarkable tally for a work which, although none of its constituent parts lasts more than around five minutes, has a total duration exceeding that of any nineteenth-century sonata – and it’s worth thinking hard about why ‘interpretation’ should matter, in music whose avowed aims are so far removed from those of most Western music. Perhaps one answer is that hindsight always allows us to perceive similarities where a contemporary observer might have seen only difference. Cage’s radical otherness is itself now an irrevocable part of the story of Western music, but there are also respects in which Cage in this period was doing what so many other composers of the time were also doing: finding ways to bypass tradition (or ‘the tradition’); seeking paths to the new in the old or in the exotically distant; discovering, too, that sometimes what seemed abolished or superseded was still there after all, albeit in transformed guise.
These imperatives, indeed, Sonatas and Interludes fulfils admirably – through making the success of the work as much a matter of instrument-building as of execution, through thus remaking the piano as a domestic percussion orchestra, through (as a further consequence) putting at the centre of the music not harmony but timbre. The old in the new is here in the binary-form simplicity which is the work’s basic structuring principle (all the sonatas are composed this way, even down to repeat marks for both A and B sections, while the interludes are more through-composed): ‘sonata’ here has a meaning closer to Scarlatti’s than to Mozart’s or Beethoven’s, although the way those short binary units build into an hour-long work conceived as a unity suggests that even in this modest, home-made environment Cage had an eye on the major statement – or at least an ear for it.
And Cage’s centenary year is surely far from the least appropriate moment for this quiet, unassuming masterpiece, having long ago perched on the edge of the canon, to take a step towards its centre … or is it the canon taking a step towards Sonatas and Interludes? Cédric Pescia, whose previous discography has spanned from Bach to Schumann and Debussy, performed the work extensively in concert over a period of around three years, making decisions about his approach and at the same time experimenting with different pianos – a large Steinway, a Yamaha … – before settling on a Steinway ‘B’ model. (Research since Cage’s death by both Philipp Vandré and, more recently, Luk Vaes has indicated that Cage wrote the work – and, crucially, established the specifications for the prepared notes – using his own piano, the smaller Steinway ‘O’ model which was current at the time but is not in normal use today.)