Thursday, August 16, 2012

James Tenney's Sonatas & Interludes

On July 30, Hat Hut Records released a CD of James Tenney's studio rendition of Sonatas & InterludesJohn Cage's seminal prepared piano work. It was recorded on July 18, 2002 at the KPFK studios.

When considering the significance of a CD like thisArt Lange's quote from the liner notes says it well:

"How rare, and valuable, it is to be able to experience one composer’s masterwork through the sensibility of another significant, stylistically distinct composer – via a performance that reveals unexpected aspects of both. That is to say, an approach to performance not as an act of self-conscious, flamboyant or dramatic interpretation, according to the concerns of technique, expression, and projection that are at the heart of an instrumentalist’s presentation of a musical score to an audience, but something completely different; rather, an examination of the music’s premise and complex details from a contrasting, individual, compositional curiosity."

Tenney performed Sonatas & Interludes with some frequency, along with Ives' Concord Sonata (sometimes playing the pair as two halves of a concert, preparing the piano during intermission). Given that a 1951 performance of S&I purportedly influenced Tenney's decision to pursue music, it is surprising that piano preparation didn't find it's way into more of Tenney's own music. When he did use prepared piano, it was in a unique way, like pairing it with Balinese gamelan in The Road To Ubud.

Most people that read this blog already know about S&I, so I won't go into too much detail about the piece itself. The recording quality is crystal clear, with what sounds like a healthy dash of Lexicon. The expressivity of the performance is superb, making a lot of potentially alien gestures sound very natural and ultimately human. That is a trick which some other recordings fall short of - talking through the prepared piano as a native speaker, without a dodecaphonic accent.

Listening to Tenney's version of S&I inspired me to go back and listen to my other recordings of the piece (which I have three of...). It is fascinating to compare each performer's approach to timbre in the same way classical connoisseurs compare orchestras' and conductors' interpretations of standard orchestral repertoire. Performative interpretation is obviously important, but when so much idiosyncratic pre-performance handiwork is requested of someone (the actual preparation of the piano), his/her approach to it speaks volumes about his/her relationship to the music.

In the end, I am reminded of a poster that Greg Hollowaymy first percussion teacher, had in his studio. It read: Worry Is Not Preparation.

Here are a few videos of Tenney performing S&I at the Schindler House, Los Angeles:

1 comment:

Susan Allen said...

And, Daniel, tomorrow August 17 will be the 41st anniversary of Jim's composing 'August Harp'.....