Concert pianist Adam Tendler has spent the past five years roaming America with John Cage. Specifically, he travelled with the mythic composer's 1948 work, Sonatas and Interludes, a rhythmically intricate 70 minute piece written for a meticulously prepared piano. Tendler is no stranger to performing on the road. His 2005-6 independent concert tour, America 88x50, brought modern American music to artistically under-served communities in all 50 states. Cage's influence on American and international artistic consciousness is undeniable but 4′33″ notwithstanding, his vast body of work is generally underrepresented in the contemporary soundscape. Tendler has proved himself a dedicated, thoughtful and compelling ambassador of this work. He is performing next this Sunday New York's Rubin Museum of Art as part of their Resonating Light series. Full Details
Whitehot met Adam for coffee at Chelsea's Soho House.
Kyra Kordoski: Can you give us a brief introduction to Sonatas and Interludes?
Adam Tendler: Certain researchers consider this particular piece sort of his thesis on everything he'd done until 1948, which had been very controlled music, and actually very emotional music. It was music that was crafted on sound and intuition, and on emotional depictions, which later he would become 100% against. And not much later either, within a couple of years. Someone asked recently if this piece had been successful, and it was—I talk about it as being like Bjork's first album, or Radiohead, things that are successful in a popular realm, but people understand that it's creative and they almost give the artist a license to go further—'You can do what you want, we get it. We get that you're interesting, do your thing.'
It’s inspired by a Hindu theory called rasa that separates the human experience into eight permanent states: the heroic, erotic, wondrous, mirthful, sorrowful, fearful, angry and odious, and they're all supposed to lead towards tranquility. He doesn't say where in the piece each is happening, he doesn't say 'this is odious' or 'this is mirthful' and there are parts where I feel like more than one thing is happening at the same time, but I do feel like the end of the piece collapses into this very still, silent place where everything does come together. So he's letting an emotional theme guide his music. He's letting his ear determine what's going to sound mirthful, whereas later that entire idea would be offensive to him.
Kordoski: The score is almost a work of art in and of itself...
Tendler: It's a beautiful hand-written score. A lot of his music still exists only this way. I wish that more Cage researchers would talk about his drafts, because the music is so beautifully written-out that it makes me wonder what it looked like beforehand. This is so perfectly done, and it's inked, there's no room for error. To me it's just this beautiful accomplishment. As a performer I feel l get to be that much closer to Cage, and I feel like he must have truly meant every single dynamic marking, and every pedal marking—I'm very busy with my feet throughout this whole piece.
But there's nothing unconventional about the notation, that all happened later. The only thing that transforms the piece is this first table of preparations. And the descriptions you see, when he writes that he wants the material to be a screw or a bolt, he still doesn't say exactly what that means and I've gone to different hardware stores and people have given me different versions, what they think a screw is is different from what someone else thinks a screw is. So I have one screw that's really big and one that's really small and according to the piano I'm working on I actually use different ones. The process of putting all these preparations into the piano is half scientific and half, following his example, very intuitive.
I might follow his instructions down to a quarter of an inch, but then I might get a really dirty, not very nice sound. Cage said that he found the sounds for this piece as one finds shells on the beach. That has to do with a sense of, 'I like this sound.' So if it's not pleasing to me, and Cage isn't around anymore, I'm the ambassador at this moment and I have to make it work. I have to find the closest thing to the measurement—I'm not going to move the screw across the piano and put it a foot away—but I have to think, maybe here is the thing he was looking for... so it's a conversation I have to have with this score.
Every single note becomes its own instrument that I sort of have to tune. Preparing the piano takes about two hours, and it takes about three seconds to take it out.
Kordoski: How long have you been working with this piece?
Tendler: I've been performing this across north america for five years. The program I did before this was still modern music, and that one I performed in all fifty states. This one, not as many states so far. But enough that I've performed in very different areas, from metropolitan San Francisco and Chicago and so on, to Reno and Alaska and Maui. I was thinking the other day that people's reactions are not that different from place to place, the piece truly resonates with people. They are intensely affected by it emotionally, and they were generally not prepared for that to happen. They thought they were coming for a real chance operations endurance test, to see, 'how long can I stand this kind of music?' And then it ends up being extremely inviting and really eerie—this whole kind of wonderland of sounds that do end up meaning something.
Kordoski: And how have the different spaces and architectures you’ve encountered affected the performances?
Tendler: I think it's worked best where there's been room for the sound to grow. When you insert one piece of material into the string, even if it's the smallest piano, suddenly that one note creates this huge echo within the piano and you have this chasm of sound. When you apply that to the entire piano you create all these overtones, and even when there's nothing about the room that helps the sound, it works. In some respects it’s nice to have a very live room where the echos can play with each other, and we have these drums kind of working, but it hasn't been integral.
The way the piece is structured, in a way, could be thought of as architectural too. Within each movement there are symmetries in how the phrases are structured. There are usually two sections that are repeated, but even within the sections he created kind of weird ratios that gave him the space within which he could compose. Later he would create similar structures but what would happen there would be chance procedures.
Kordoski: What prompted you to take on Sonatas and Interludes?
Tendler: In 2007 I'd finished the fifty state tour; I’d travelled with a silent piano to practice on at the time. I had a summer to decompress from that experience. I’d written thousands of pages of journals which I was trying to shape into a book, which is still happening—I was in the closet at the time, the tour itself was a community service, but in a way I was also just trying to figure out how to reconcile... even my identity as an artist. I'd just come out of music school and suddenly I was pretending in my mind to be a concert pianist, and people were believing me. It's still a trip, to me, because I just came out and started taking on this identity...
When it was all over, I was left with the silent piano and I had this score. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to learn a piece which if I were to practice on a regular piano would be really disorienting and not helpful at all. I started memorizing the piece from the last page backwards, silently, on the silent piano. I was actually working at a vet, at the time (talk about decompressing) I was just trying to make rent, and I would actually bring this score to the vet (this was in Malibu so it was like celebrity pets, like Britney Spears's cat and Barbara Streisand's dog, it was insane) but I would bring the score and I would pick a line, like, this is the line for today, and I would look at it all day, try to find any pattern I could, and then I'd go home to the silent piano.
Some days I'd come to a phrase and think, 'this is the one, this is the one I won't be able to memorize. I can't do it." But eventually it happened, it was like this weird miracle. Sometimes I'm even on stage playing and the miracle of it actually occurs to me... and then I fall apart. It took nine months and at the end of it I could perform, and still can, the whole thing silently, from memory. I don't use the score. Only when it was all memorized did I actually prepare my piano—at the time I lived with a grand piano so I could do it—and that was this watershed moment.
Kordoski: And performing adds a whole new dimension... what has been like sharing Cage's piece with an audience?
Tendler: That shock of the unexpected sound is cool for the first three minutes, and then all the audience is left with is the music, and that can be a challenge for some people, especially if the music isn't always really rocking out. Sometimes it does! There are some real points of interest, but it's not an easy piece. I really feel like at the end—I don't know if people know what’s happened, sometimes I don't even know what’s happened—but there’s some sort of shift, and lately when I get to the final measure I get this really overwhelming sense of joy, which didn't used to happen because I think the ending is very humble. It just disappears. It kind of rises into this very pure sound and then it's over. At that point, every time I've ever played it I know everyone's with me. Even if they checked out at some point during the performance I know that they're back. At that moment I used to get kind of dark, I would get a little sad, and lately when I get there I feel almost like I'm going to laugh. It's really weird. It's the journey that happened with this piece. I'm changing with it.