John Cage – Sonata V

I’m aware this isn’t on the list, but as I’ve been focusing on this piece quite a bit this semester, I decided that I may as well analyse it on this blog.

This Sonata comes from Cage’s group of works Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. Preparing the piano involved a complex insertion of screws, coins, felt, rubber, wood and other objects between the strings. Listeners would be “expecting to be battered by some unholy racket; the preparation process […] is conceptually violent, but the sounds themselves are innately sweet” (Ross, A. The Rest Is Noise) Sonatas and Interludes is one of his most well known works for prepared piano, and its most intricate. It can take up to three hours to add all the necessary objects, and involves forty-five notes. The individual pieces are said to symbolise each of the eight “permanent” emotions, and their tendency towards tranquility: the erotic, heroic, anger, wondrous, sorrow, disgust, the humorous and fear. For the purpose of this analysis I will be focusing on the fifth Sonata.

Cage’s Sonata V for Prepared piano is very percussive in its rhythms and sounds. Cage has mentioned that the within his Sonatas and Interludes “pieces with bell-like sounds suggest Europe and others with a drum-like resonance suggest the East”. It seems from both listening to the work and studying the score that this Sonata would fall into the second category. The continuous quaver ostinato in the left hand, combined with the prepared piano, achieves a very percussive texture and timbre. Indeed, at first listening I nearly forgot that this was a piano piece, and thought I was hearing multiple percussion instruments. Hence, the use of rhythm within this piece is innovative in that, strictly speaking, there are no individual percussion instruments, rather the piano being altered to sound more like its percussive side than its melodic side. The melody uses quite a limited range, moving between three (altered) pitches. It gives off a very oriental type sound, especially at points like 1:36. This is a clear example of Cage’s influence by Eastern music. As the entire work was influenced by eight emotions, and Cage never quite made it explicit which emotion goes with which movement, I decided to analyse the timbre in order to determine for myself which emotion it fits into. Everything about this piece is very staccato, especially the left hand, whilst the melody has syncopated and bell like sound.

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, and understanding the innovations behind made me appreciate it even more. The different timbres that were produced made for a very interesting and surprising listen.



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What’s It about?

This is a blog for staff and students in the Composition Program at Monash University. We intend to keep a record of our study, thinking and compositional projects to document our work, show the world outside what we do and invite comment. We hope that over time the blog will provide useful hints and ideas about the creative processes of composition.

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