“Oh, dammit. I wish I’d thought of that,” said Lou Harrison upon seeing what John Cage had done to his Steinway (inserting screws, weatherstripping, erasers, and other everyday objects between the strings to change their tone, effectively making a whole percussion ensemble under the control of one keyboard player). It was 1940 and the prepared piano (inspired by Henry Cowell and encouraged by John’s mom) was to be Cage’s signature invention for the next few years. It solved a number of problems: limited pit space during dance performances, percussion ensembles were hard to come by during war time, and the fact that samplers were a long ways off. He ‘consciously improvised’ a number of pieces (not unlike selecting and arranging seashells from a walk along beach) before setting to work on his magnum opus for the instrument, Sonatas and Interludes (1946-‘48).
Sidestepping the need for conventional tonal relationships (depressing a key was as likely to result in a thunk, buzz, bell-tone, or twang as a clear pitch or chord), the compositional structure employed Cage’s developing sense of rhythmically nested proportions, repetitions and symmetries at various timeframes (concepts he tied to Erik Satie). But the creation also coincided with Cage’s budding interest in Indian Classical music; the Tala (rhythmic structures) and Rasa (moods) that he was learning about from Gita Sarabhai and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. These ‘permanent emotions’ include humor, wonder, erotic, heroic, anger, fear, disgust, sorrow, and, ultimately, tranquility. Although these moods can’t be ascribed to specific Sonatas there is perhaps a general sense of tranquility and easy coexistence of Eastern and European timbres and associations.
Despite the specificity of Cage’s Table of Preparations, the fact is that each piano responds differently to the alterations. The bass frequencies and overall dynamics are significantly reduced so that the effect is more akin to a kaleidoscopic harpsichord or clavichord than a grand piano. It is this approach that Italian pianist, Agnese Toniutti, has taken with her recording, bringing out the wonder and delicacy of the tones rather than trying to compensate for their muting. Indeed, Cage suggested, “If you enjoy playing the Sonatas and Interludes then do it so that it seems right to you.”
Agnese Toniutti is no stranger to the timbral piano (her album Subtle Matters includes works by Lucia Dlugoszewski, Tan Dun, and Philip Corner) and she brings a precision to her interpretation of Cage’s masterwork that allows the music to sparkle as it reveals its inner logic. With mastering by Erdem Helvacioglu this recording shines alongside those by James Tenney, Maro Ajemian, Margaret Leng Tan, Herbert Henck, and others, showing this landmark work in a whole new, wondrous light.
released February 11, 2023
Mastered by Erdem Helvacioglu
Video excerpts from live performance at the Contemporanea Festival, Italy. Used by permission.
Italian pianist Agnese Toniutti has devoted herself to the exploration of contemporary and 20th Century music. Her peculiar piano repertoire often revolves around the concept of sound and its role in musical composition.
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I love the sound world of these works by Eden Lonsdale, and have listened this album constantly since it came out one month ago. Anatomy of Joy is my favorite track. I hope to hear more from this composer. Eric Sather