For her contribution to the centennial celebrations of John Cage’s birth, pianist Eliza Garth presented the composer’s magnum opus for prepared piano, Sonatas and Interludes. In the sprawling and exotic 70-minute work, presented at Merkin Concert Hall on Sunday night, Cage sought to translate his adoration for Hindu aesthetics into a large-scale work comprised of short, almost arabesque-like movements. The noted Cage scholar James Pritchett called the work, “a big piece with a quiet voice,” which perfectly summarizes the limitations of the prepared-piano medium.
The placement of objects on the strings of the piano (the “preparation”) muted and dampened the piano’s timbre, often transforming the instrument’s usually bold voice into an intimate series of sounds imitating gongs, chimes, and other percussive elements. In fact, the strength of Sonatas and Interludes lies in Cage’s ability to write for the piano not only as a melodic instrument, but also to unleash the instrument’s inherent percussive potential.
In Garth’s hands, the work managed to find the right balance between expression and percussion. At times, Garth made her instrument sound like a line of tribal drums; at others, a group of strummed string instruments. With a number of the piano’s 88 keys left unprepared, Garth worked to project the rounded sound of the unaltered pitches in the context of the staccato sounds of the prepared keys. As the piece progressed and each movement grew in maturity and length, florid elements abounded, calling to mind the piano music of Debussy. The performance became vibrant in these moments, with the cascading beauty of the piano’s ringing tone sounding alongside the gamelan-like sounds of the prepared pitches.
Despite the limitations of the prepared piano (changes are not made to the preparation of strings during the performance), Garth produced a wide-ranging palette of sounds. And, through it all, her Zen-like approach to the performance was captivating—right down to her methodically slow page turns and deep, strategic breaths between movements. Garth made the evening’s silences as poignant as the sounds; one can only imagine how Cage himself would have cherished that.