The piano is prepared
. but are we?
Mention the name of John Cage to most people even faintly 'in the know' and
the security shutters roll down. He, together with Stockhausen, Luigi Nono
and Bussotti, were the high priests of the avant-garde during the 1960s.
When, at long last, the 1970s signalled a return to a new accessibility his
music and that of many others began to take up the cellar and loft space
previously occupied by the music of Bax, Moeran, Piston and a host of other
Nowadays a much more catholic public is able, through the secure medium of
the CD (and no doubt other carriers in due course),to enjoy a very much wider
range of material while the record magazines (with the honourable exception
of Fanfare), radio stations and concert promoters become increasingly narrow
- mainstream classics, celebrity splurges, trendy commissions and little
Now we can listen to Cage with a less prejudiced ear. What can he offer to
the adventurer? The style of these works is not that prickly. Much here is
extremely beautiful although the emphasis is on patterns of notes and silence
rather than melody. There are in fact sixteen sonatas and four interludes.
I will stand back from comment on individual tracks. The work seems to have
a reflective calmness as its axis. Much of the music is quiet - crepuscular
- suggesting ancient starry nights. Lights glint and a chilly glow fades
and comes again. The influence of gamelan seems obvious. I wonder if gamelan
ensembles were touring the States during the early 1940s? Anyone who has
heard the 78s of Britten and Colin McPhee playing the Gamelan Anklung
(Balinese Ceremonial Music) or knows the Britten ballet Prince
of the Pagodas will have some inkling of what to expect. The oriental
element here is not fake Chinoiserie (nothing of Ketèlbey or any one
of hundreds of purveyors) but conveys to this listener a mesmerised and mesmeric
absorption in mantras and time-suspending music. A similar approach was adopted
by Stockhausen in his Hymnus. Also it is not a far step onwards from
Cage to the minimalism of Steve Reich (Variations for orchestra) and
Philip Glass. The music has the wayward charm of an aleatory music box out
of control (no doubt some tautology there!).
If you enjoy the minimalists then do try this disc. If you have already come
across the entrancing prepared pianola music of Conlon Nancarrow (now there's
a project for you Naxos) try this. John Foulds' Essays in the Modes and
his orchestra; Three Mantras from Avatara also have some spiritual
kinship with this music.
As for the piano's preparation this is specified in the score and with some
precision: screws, bolts, bits of plastic and even a specific make of
india-rubber are all inserted at specific locations amongst the piano's strings.
The effect is one of Ariel-like witchery: Prospero's Island in deed.
Berman is a pianist I associated with the grand romantic manner. His sequence
of recordings from the 1970s and 1980s often centred on Rachmaninov. I was
not expecting him to weigh in on Cage's behalf.
David Revill's notes agreeably complete a package that would be fine at any
price but is commanding at this level.
Do not be put off by other people's prejudices. You will be surprised by
the whispered ice-crystal beauty of this music written in the stultifying
atmosphere of 1940s post-war USA. A very strong contender indeed and made
all the more significant by having Berman at the helm. There are no competitors
at this superbargain price range and very few at any price. I recall hearing
Roger Woodward's Headline Decca LP many years ago and there may be a Wergo
CD available but I would doubt that you will better Berman and Naxos's cleanly