John Cage was one of the most influential composers in 20th Century experimental music, and his infamous 4’33 is the subject of many musical jokes. One of his greatest legacies was the prepared piano – by placing objects on or between the piano’s strings, Cage essentially created a one-person percussion ensemble.
Cage developed a new form of rhythmic structure which he termed ‘micro-macrocosmic’, as the structure of individual phrases in each Sonata corresponds to the structure of the piece as a whole. For a detailed breakdown of the structure of each Sonata, see the document below:
Other features to note are the missing quaver in bar 11 of Sonata 1, which is compensated for by the rit., and the frequent, often silent 3/8 bars in Sonata 2.
The textures used in these pieces are ‘lightweight’, as Cage wished to expose the timbres of the prepared piano. Silence is also a significant feature in all three Sonatas.
Textural features include the use of homophonic chords (such as in the first bar of Sonata 1), monophony in the first bar of Sonata 2, two part homorhythm (bar 10, Sonata 2), treble movement over a static ostinato or pedal note (bar 17, Sonata 2 and bar 1, Sonata 3) and layered textures (bar 30, Sonata 2).
Harmony and Tonality
The preparation of the piano alters some of the pitches, so there is no real sense of key. However, repetition of phrases emphasises certain pitches, and the use of stepwise movement suggests ‘cadence’ points. As Cage generally rejected Western harmony (he preferred to focus on the interactions of different sounds), there are very few moments which listeners might recognise as ‘harmonic’, although there are G7 chords in the opening of Sonata 1, and parallel chords in bar 20.
Cage’s score gives very specific instructions for how the piano should be prepared, including which materials should be used (different forms of rubber, metal and plastic are listed), which string they should be placed on, and how far down the string they should go. The addition of these materials can create one or more of four different effects:
- Quietening the sound of a note
- Shortening the duration of a note
- Changing the timbre of the note
- Splitting one sound into two or three
Only around half of the piano’s 88 pitches are prepared. In some cases, only one of the two or three strings for a particular pitch is altered. For these notes, the una corda pedal of the piano is used, meaning that only the prepared string will be hit when the key is pressed.
Despite the detail of Cage’s instructions, variations between different pianos means that no two performances of these Sonatas will ever sound quite the same.
Rhythm and Metre
Where repetition occurs in the pieces, patterns are repeated immediately, rather than later in the piece. These patterns are placed unpredictably within the bar, rather than following the natural stresses of the metre, and irregular rhythmic groupings sometimes obscure the natural pulse. This can create syncopated effects, such as in bar 4 of Sonata 2.
The melodic lines of each piece are made up mostly of short statements, which have a defined shape and are separated by rests (such as bar 5, Sonata 1). This includes arch shaped melodies (for example, bar 15, Sonata 1). The use of different pitches is relatively limited, and in some cases there are suggestions of a pentatonic scale, particularly in Sonata 2. Conjunct movement is particularly prevalent in Sonatas 2 and 3, and there is also some use of grace notes.
Sonata 3 uses some more conventional melodic features, such as repetition, sequences, inversion and augmentation (bars 18-19).
This video also includes Sonata 5, but only Sonatas 1-3 are part of the A Level Syllabus