Before Christopher Durrenberger plays sections of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes during his free 3 p.m. recital today at Wittenberg University’s Krieg Hall, he’ll check under the lid of the 7-foot Steinway to see if a screw is loose.
The associate professor of music will, in fact, make sure all 63 bolts, nuts, screws, plumber’s gaskets and erasers he put into the piano’s strings are just where Cage intended, down to the 32nd of an inch.
Otherwise the 45 notes the avant garde composer adjusted to create a sound palate from India won’t fit compositions written to express the “eight permanent emotions” that are part of the subcontinent’s traditions.
“My son couldn’t stand it at first; he thought I was strangling the piano,” said Durrenberger, who is also director of music at Springfield’s Christ Episcopal Church.
The performer’s own perfect pitch also proved a hurdle in playing keys that sometimes send a pitch down where he expects it to go up.
But he’s found the “shades and colors” of sound Cage created interesting. And he’s found himself adjusting to the need to allow space in the music so that the ear can take in sounds that are new to the listener’s vocabulary.
As Durrenberger played sections of the piece in his studio, the doctored piano sounded like tuned drums, wooden wind chimes and metallic rattles.
In addition to its unusual sounds, the composition is “all over the piano,” rhythmically challenging and requires him to play forcefully.
Said Durrenberger, “My fingers are like mallets.”
The effect of Cage’s adjustments can at first seems comic, but morph to interesting, and, in softer passages, “sometimes it sounds eerie,” the performer said.
Durrenberger played the Cage pieces, along “Four Piano Blues” by Aaron Copland and “Preludes for Piano” by George Gershwin, for the all-American concerts and lectures he gave in a three-week tour of China during a sabbatical last semester.
The man who put himself through school as a piano technician and who has rebuilt Steinways said doctoring the pianos for his performances proved “a fascinating project for me.”
Because the composer’s instructions were for a 7-foot grand and he performed in pianos ranging from 6- to 9-feet in the cities Shanghai, Dalian, Beijing, Shenyan, Tianjin and Wuhan, “I had to make adjustments,” Durrenberger said.
The larger pianos tended to sound more percussive and the smaller more melodic, though not as melodic as the Steinway he will perform on today.
In preparing them, “I tended to listen for the most resonant or beautiful tones … to give it coherence,” he said.
As he will today, he played sections of the piece in alternate ways, sometimes using the “soft” pedal, sometimes not.
The difference can be dramatic, because in the upper third of the piano, all the adjustments to the tones are in the second and third strings.
Without the pedal the first string of each note will sound, with the pedal it will not, something that “allows you to get only the prepared sound,” he said.
“It was really cool to be able to share these things with the kids in China,” who aren’t exposed to avant garde music, Durrenberger said.
Like his Chinese audience, those attending today’s recital will be able to watch a projected score during the Cage music.
Listeners likely won’t need that help in the second half of the program, when Durrenberger turns to Gershwin and Copland, whose compositions he included to give his Chinese audiences a “jazz inspired element.”
For those wondering, Durrenberger used brass hardware between the piano strings because it’s softer than the steel piano wire and will not damage it.
But then, to do otherwise, he’d have to have a screw loose.