To continue this week of guest blog posts, I recently interviewed Peter Henderson, who performed Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes a few weeks ago at the Pulitzer. Our next chamber concerts aren’t until September (the summer is off-season for the Symphony), but I’m hoping to make interviews with musicians a regular feature. Here’s Peter on the complexities of the prepared piano and what its like to perform at the Pulitzer:
How long have you been with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and where did you work previously?
I’m actually only an occasional extra keyboardist with the St. Louis Symphony, not an orchestra member. Barbara Liberman is our keyboard section leader (she jokes that she’s our “section mother”), and as the Principal player she does most of the keyboard work in orchestral concerts. I’m fortunate to have been frequently involved in chamber music presented by the SLSO since 2002, as well as to have played several times with the orchestra. It’s an honor and a pleasure working with the fantastic musicians of the SLSO and their brilliant music director, David Robertson.
I do work full-time at Maryville University in St. Louis, where I serve as Assistant Professor of Music. After graduate school, my first post was as a member of the resident quartet at the Garth Newel Music Center in Hot Springs, Virginia.
The program performed on June 5th consisted of Sonatas and Interludes by John Cage. Have you performed this work before?
I performed it first at the St. Louis Community College-Forest Park on May 5th at the invitation of Dr. Thomas Zirkle. This first performance went fairly well, and that gave me confidence leading up to the performance at the Pulitzer.
Could you describe the process of preparing a piano and what you had to do for this piece?
This Cage work is unusual in many ways, but its most obvious individual characteristic is the timbre of the piano when dampened so thoroughly by bits of hardware. The idea of preparing the piano was primarily developed by John Cage in the late 1930s, and was manifested as an exploratory method of expanding the tone-production capabilities of the conventional piano, altering string lengths and resonating qualities by placing bolts, screws, rubber and plastic mutes, etc. between specific strings.
I began my study of the Sonatas and Interludes by Googling for tips on how others prepared the piano for performances of this work; I soon learned that Cage’s Table of Preparations appearing before the music in the printed score is not as precise as I had at first assumed. After making some guesses about appropriate relative sizes and characteristics of hardware (my wife Kristin thought of using vinyl weather-stripping instead of rubber, which worked marvelously, I used fragments of a cut-up “Books-A-Million” club card for the required plastic), my wife kindly went to Home Depot for me and bought all of the bits-and-pieces on my shopping list.
How did you prepare for the performance at the Pulitzer?
Because I did not want to prepare my piano at home according to Cage’s instructions (partly because such preparation makes a piano useless for practicing conventional music), I first prepared a piano at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park on the day of my May performance there. This was a gamble, but luckily my chosen set of materials worked well in the 9-foot Baldwin grand at Forest Park and I assumed (correctly it turns out) that it would function even better in a 7-foot Steinway at the Pulitzer. Once I had the mechanical preparation in hand, I set about refining my understanding of the music itself. I did this first through score study and listening. I bought a couple of contrasting recordings of the Sonatas and Interludes: Boris Berman’s fine performance on Naxos and Steffen Schleiermacher’s very concentrated rendition on Dabringhaus und Grimm. Each one of these recordings taught me some useful things about the score (including some of the pitches–John Cage’s handwritten script as reproduced in the Peter’s score is rather difficult to read), but I didn’t practice at the keyboard until the end of the month, when the rental Steinway was delivered to the Pulitzer.
I had realized after my first performance of the work that practice on an unprepared piano is not very helpful, so I asked whether it might be possible to practice on the performance piano (after preparing it well in advance) at the Pulitzer. Matthias and Elise were extremely generous in allowing me to practice intensively at the Pulitzer for a week before the concert. I believe that I was actually at the performance piano for 20-some hours during that week. The most helpful thing that I did during this time was to record the entire work three separate times. Each informal recording session taught me several musical details that I needed to approach differently in order to make the performance better!
One of the key aspects in our chamber concert series is the interaction between the music and the work on view. Do you feel there is this interaction and does the art work influence your performance at all?
In this particular case, I was so involved with the eccentricities of the prepared piano that I didn’t give much consideration to the art on display at the Pulitzer. I believe that I understand, however, why Maestro Robertson felt that Sugimoto’s photographic studies of the sculpture Joe would merge well with Cage’s prepared piano masterpiece: both Sugimoto’s photographs and Cage’s pieces are highly focused upon a restricted aspect of human experience. The Cage work seems to explore its exotic sound world so thoroughly over the course of an hour that we sense its limitations and are ready once again to embrace the generic, universal sound of an unprepared piano. Sugimoto’s photographs, with their stark emphasis on line, shape and form, draw us to consider the essential solidity of their single subject, in spite of the ethereal quality of the images). To me, these works of Sugimoto and Cage engender reflective, inwardly oriented experiences in the perceiver.
You’ve performed a number of times at the Pulitzer. Do you have a favorite concert so far?
I’m a music lover, not just a professional! I listen to recordings at home for fun after playing concerts. This love makes it more difficult for me to pick out particular favorites among concerts, because I tend to enjoy them all to varying degrees. The Grisey work performed during spring 2006 was a very satisfying project, even though it was particularly thorny for all of the performers. Perhaps my favorite performances were the December 2004 concert featuring Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and this recent Cage recital. As a musician, I’m very grateful for Emmy Pulitzer’s vision in opening this remarkable institution to music as well as the visual arts. This singularly beautiful space lends a unique focus to the art on display, and it also turns out to have a fantastic crystal-clear acoustic. The energy and quality of the collaboration between the SLSO and the Pulitzer are remarkable and I hope that it continues for a good long time!
Do you have a favorite memory or anecdote you’d like to share from either performing or rehearsing for a concert at the Pulitzer?
I’d just like to thank the staff of the Pulitzer for being so helpful leading up to the Cage concert. The two Steves who are the facilities managers were very kind to allow a grand piano to take up some of their workspace for over a week. They also loaned me a tape measure and needle-nosed pliers to help with the preparation of the rental piano!