John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer, music theorist, writer, philosopher, and artist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in musicelectroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Students of music history have probably seen photographs of pianos fitted by Cage with all sorts of foreign objects — bits of rubber stuffed between strings, hammers fitted with tacks, perhaps even a wooden spoon poking out from the instrument’s entrails at an odd angle. The so-called prepared piano, for which the Sonatas and Interludes are composed, provides the means by which a single instrument is able to evoke a wide variety of colors, timbres, and textures. The score, then, indicates not the sounds to be heard, but the action to be taken. Striking a particular key might produce a pitch, a hi-hat-like sizzle, or a wooden thump. Cage originally conceived the prepared piano for his 1938 work Bacchanale, in response to a request from dancer Syvilla Fort to provide music for a six-minute dance that had no budget and space for no more than one pianist. He used it again in A Book of Music (1944) and Three Dances (1945) before employing it in Sonatas and Interludes in 1948. The sound is immediately engaging, and because of the differences between various pianos and the numerous varieties of weather stripping, thumb tacks, and wooden spoons available, each performance or recording is distinct. The work conjures a world of sound that is variously serene, haunting, percussive, and surreal. 

Sonatas and Interludes is a collection of twenty pieces for prepared piano  composed after Cage’s introduction to Indian philosophy and the teachings of art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, both of which became major influences on the composer’s later work. Significantly more complex than his other works for prepared piano, Sonatas and Interludes is generally recognized as one of Cage’s finest achievements.

The cycle consists of sixteen sonatas (thirteen of which are cast in binary form, the remaining three in ternary form) and four more freely structured interludes. The aim of the pieces is to express the eight permanent emotions of the rasa Indian tradition. In Sonatas and Interludes, Cage elevated his technique of rhythmic proportions to a new level of complexity. In each sonata a short sequence of natural numbers and fractions defines the structure of the work and that of its parts, informing structures as localized as individual melodic lines.

Cage underwent an artistic crisis in the early 1940s. His compositions were rarely accepted by the public, and he grew more and more disillusioned with the idea of art as communication. He later gave an account of the reasons: “Frequently I misunderstood what another composer was saying simply because I had little understanding of his language. And I found other people misunderstanding what I myself was saying when I was saying something pointed and direct”. At the beginning of 1946, Cage met Gita Sarabhai, an Indian musician who came to the United States concerned about Western influence on the music of her country. Sarabhai wanted to spend several months in the US, studying Western music. She took lessons in counterpoint and contemporary music with Cage, who offered to teach her for free if she taught him about Indian music in return. Sarabhai agreed and through her Cage became acquainted with Indian music and philosophy. The purpose of music, according to Sarabhai’s teacher in India, was “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences”, and this definition became one of the cornerstones of Cage’s view on music and art in general.

At around the same time, Cage began studying the writings of the Indian art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Among the ideas that influenced Cage was the description of the rasa aesthetic and of its eight “permanent emotions”. These emotions are divided into two groups: four white (humor, wonder, erotic, and heroic—”accepting one’s experience”, in Cage’s words) and four black (anger, fear, disgust, and sorrow). They are the first eight of the navarasas or navrasas (“nine emotions”), and they have a common tendency towards the ninth of the navarasas: tranquility. Cage never specified which of the pieces relate to which emotions, or whether there even exists such direct correspondence between them. He mentioned, though, that the “pieces with bell-like sounds suggest Europe and others with a drum-like resonance suggest the East”. (A short excerpt from Sonata II, which is clearly inspired by Eastern music. Cage also stated that Sonata XVI, the last of the cycle is “clearly European. It was the signature of a composer from the West.”

Thomas Nicholson, prepared piano