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Conor Hanick plays
John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes
Nov 15 @ 8.30pm

In celebration of the John Cage centennial, pianist Conor Hanick plays Cage's landmark Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48). It is perhaps Cage's finest compositional achievement and a masterpiece of the post-war avant garde. Even Pierre Boulez liked it. Predating his work with indeterminacy and chance operations, Cage's hour-long collection of twenty miniatures is an extraordinary example of architectural form and musical organization: each movement meticulously notated, every pitch, rhythm and expressive marking chosen with purpose.

Boris Berman plays Sonata 9 (excerpt)

Despite the directness of the work's formal intentions, the Sonatas and Interludes' most significant compositional trait — its complex and extensive preparation of over half the piano's 88 notes — is a true interpretational conundrum, and ironically, in a way that would later become Cage's compositional calling card, is itself a fascinating experiment in indeterminacy.

Cage provides precise instructions about where and with what to prepare each note, asking the pianist to insert screws, bolts and other materials between the strings, and indicating their locations from the dampers down to a sixteenth of an inch. He doesn't, however, describe the physical traits of each material — leaving out screw size, bolt length, nut width, rubber thickness, etc. — and by doing so concedes a dramatic range of timbral outcomes.

The preparations, then, become one of the central interpretive challenges of the work, and, quite beautifully, allows for every performance of Sonatas and Interludes to be radically different from the last, each occupying an entirely different but equally valid, sonic space. Cage acknowledged as much, and said that the score's detailed grid of preparations was a reflection of the sounds that, to him, were "most interesting" given the material used. He later said, rather cryptically, that "if you enjoy playing the Sonatas and Interludes, you should do it so it seems right for you."

The result, no matter what the technical preparations, is a work of startling contrast and emotional depth — at times assuming an almost Zen-like stasis, and at others starkly pitting contrasting expressive attitudes — and offers one of the most novel acoustic worlds ever created for the piano.

Conor Hanick

Conor Hanick, Smith College's Iva Dee Hiatt Visiting Artist in Piano, is a devoted promoter of contemporary music and has collaborated with, commissioned, and premiered works by composers of all genres and generations, including students and faculty members from Northwestern University, Princeton University, Yale University, the Aspen Music Festival, Manhattan School of Music, and the Juilliard School.

He has worked with John Adams, Pierre Boulez, Tan Dun, Mario Davidovsky, Charles Wuorinen, Magnus Lindberg, and David Lang, and is an active member of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, AXIOM, and the Grammy-nominated Metropolis Ensemble. Most recently Conor recorded a new piano concerto by Vivian Fung with Andrew Cyr and the Metropolis Ensemble, which will be paired with his recording of Vivian’s solo prepared piano work Glimpses and released in Spring 2012.

Although Mr. Hanick's playing "defies human description" (ConcertoNet) for some, it has yielded wide praise from others. In a huge variety of repertoire, his performances has been described as "excellent," "brilliant," "astounding," and "colorful," (New York Times) and demonstrating "technical precision and musical conviction" (Gramaphone). Particularly acclaimed have been his performances of contemporary repertoire, reminding the New York Times's Anthony Tommasini in a "riveting" performance of Olivier Messiaen's Couleurs de la Cité Céleste of "a young Peter Serkin."

Prepared Piano

As part of the New York Public Library's celebration of the Cage centenniel, pianist Margaret Leng Tan provides some insight into the process of preparing a piano. [NYPL]

Preparing the Piano for Bacchanale, with Margaret Leng Tan
from John Cage Unbound on Vimeo.