While perusing through the collections at the Art Institute of Chicago one December morning, I happened upon this piece. It’s a page from one of John Cage’s musical scores, although the symbols and his idiosyncratic handwriting might suggest otherwise. I think this visual/aural debate is fairly constant in Cage’s graphic scores, and it’s interesting to think of his work through both mediums. Which makes it fitting that a.pe.ri.od.ic’s kickoff event for their John Cage festival takes place at the Floating World Gallery tonight, where sound and sight will politely collide. Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano will be performed in their entirety among the artwork of Japanese artists Toko Shinoda and Yozo Hamaguchi.
The Floating World coincidentally seems to be an ideal name for a venue playing Cage’s prepared piano music. I actually caught a complete performance of the piece a few months back for the University of Iowa’s John Cage festival (more on that later), as well as the selections that Mabel Kwan played at the most recent Dal Niente concert. Even though she only performed two of the sonatas, the latter was just as good, if not better, than the entire performance of the former. It might have been in the preparations rather than the playing. But sonatas 14 and 15 have a definitive “floating” quality to them that can be quite difficult to bring out. It takes a particular kind of attention to detail. And it was this specificity that Kwan really executed magnificently.
There are a lot of repeated gestures—or rather sounds, seeing as it’s often a few notes struck together once—that permeate an mbira-like ostinato. But what makes them really hover is their understated dynamic nature. Cage never swells the ostinato, never gives us any of the sounds at a louder volume. It’s as if he’s granted us an opportunity to finally pay attention to some oft-ignored background noise that’s always been there. Kwan made sure to handle each different timbre gently, especially the more concrete sounding preparations. The loudest, most grounded sound you get is a low, planky toll (most likely a result of inserting rubber or metal between the strings) that arises every once in a while. Though it’s also pretty quiet, it provides a sort of wake up call amongst all the clouds within the piece.
At the Dal Niente concert, I found myself particularly hypnotized by the ostinatos. Kwan made sure to keep these repetitions clear but understated, forever tinged with curiosity. The piece presents a sensual kind of beat to sway to, and I took full advantage of that. But in retrospect, I’ve begun to think that this might do a disservice to the Sonatas and Interludes. At the end of the Dal Niente concert, I heard an audience member talking to Kwan, saying he admired how her performance of the sonatas “lacked a pulse.” I think that could have been the best compliment a pianist could ask for. I began to rethink my approach for future performances: maybe one should be listening to forget the beat, not embrace it. I think I’ll try that tonight.