David Greilsammer’s Thought-Provoking Juxtaposition of Scarlatti and Cage

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Baroque at the Edge [1] – Scarlatti and Cage: David Greilsammer (piano and prepared piano). Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London, 4.1.2019. (MB)

David Greilsammer

Freedom and organisation are two sides of the same coin. Any good German, perhaps still more so any good aspirant German, will tell you that. They, we, think dialectically: we can do no other. The most important composer of the twentieth century – no, I have no intention of qualifying that – certainly did. But what of what we, sorry they, might once have thought of as the ‘periphery’ or at least as less central to Austro-German tradition? What, say, of that composer’s most celebrated American pupil? Such was but one of the many questions – generally, fruitfully questions more than answers – that ran through my head during this fascinating juxtaposition of ‘sonatas’, works justly titled, yet hardly in the Beethovenian sense, by Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage from David Greilsammer in the opening concert of this year’s ‘Baroque at the Edge’ festival.

Should that ‘hardly’ be true of Scarlatti, whatever anticipations of some aspects of Classical style – if we prefer, The Classical Style – we may find in his music, it is perhaps still more so of Cage, whose explicitly non- (or is it anti-?) Beethovenian sense of the sonata owes something to examples such as Scarlatti’s. A quality not only of invention – after all, who is more ‘inventive’ than Haydn? – but also of the composer as inventor perhaps inevitably came through. Schoenberg’s celebrated description of John Cage as ‘an inventor of genius’ was double- or maybe triple-edged: ‘Not a composer, no … but an inventor. A great mind.’ Cage, however, was delighted, not offended, when he heard – not least since it arose, as is less often reported, from Schoenberg having been asked whether he had yet had any interesting pupils: he had initially said no, and then, at least according to Cage, had smiled and admitted that, yes, there had been one. The comparison may be exaggerated; Scarlatti, after all, did not invent the harpsichord as Cage may truly have been said to have invented to the prepared piano. Moreover, Scarlatti was here performed not on the harpsichord, nor for that matter on the fortepiano, but on the modern piano. That, however, would be somewhat to miss the point. Here we heard what, in the first, naïve instance, might have seemed to be Scarlatti in the spirit of Cage and Cage in the spirit of Scarlatti, but was surely, ultimately, rightly music by Scarlatti and Cage in the spirit in which Greilsammer decided both to combine and perform them.

The period of the interval having been given over to some words of explanation, demonstration – the audience asked to go up onstage to watch – and questions, the darkened second part had pieces alternate: one more from Scarlatti, who began and ended the recital. A swivel stool placed between the piano and prepared piano (both Steinway grands) enabled Greilsammer to switch quickly, affording both affinity and contrast or any number of other dialectics – but yet also, I think, a questioning of that mode of dialectical thought, perhaps increasingly so. My responses changed, often startlingly: not so much in a banal sense of getting used to what I was hearing, although I am sure there was an element of that, as of thinking and perhaps listening differently. I think – I hesitate to say more – that I also began to understand or to experience Cage’s music more conceptually than I had previously done, thereby appreciating the effort, which I can imagine irritating some Cageians, to turn Cage’s preference for ‘new ideas’ – ‘I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of old ones’ – upon himself. He surely deserves that at least as much as Stravinsky and others given to antagonistic – for good and for ill – aesthetic pronouncements.

For when I first head the music by Scarlatti – there was no printed programme, nor was there one online – I was often surprised both by the brusqueness and the somewhat distended, non-developmental quality afforded to many of the musical lines, almost as if they had been taken from different pieces, not necessarily even by Scarlatti, and assembled by ‘chance’. There was little or no attempt made to reimagine the sound of harpsichords or other instruments; nor, however, did the performance really fit into any pianistic tradition I knew. (Glenn Gould perhaps slightly? But swiftly again, it did not.) Even when a sonata came along that I knew, that I had played, it sounded radically different. Repeated notes were played with an unevenness I should never have attempted, should never have achieved even by incompetent default; I was far from sure that I understood why, yet had little doubt that this was not haphazard, that this was ‘mere’ chance.

Chance, however, can be more than mere; or so some, not a million miles away from this programme, might tell you. So too can many other concepts, indeed any other concepts; is that not the very idea or indeed concept of a concept? There was doubtless chance, or indeed determination, to the spirit and ears with which I heard both Cage and Scarlatti here. Having very tentatively begun listening to and exploring some Indian and Javanese music last year, I doubtless came to the ‘Eastern’ – with apologies for the half-knowing orientalism – music with certain of those expectations too. Did that help? Like anything, at least anything with Cage, the answer, should there be one, is most likely yes and no. Or is that not precisely what his aesthetic is designed to have us think? Like Stravinsky, except more so, how different? Again, yes and no, etc., etc., for as long as one wishes to proceed. Percussion sounds almost inevitably invited comparison with the ‘other’ instruments evoked by Scarlatti. What struck me as much as anything else, though, was again how limited such comparison proved: certainly, more a starting point for listening to something that was very much this musician’s particular performance, this listener’s particular response to that performance, than an end in itself. I might well, of course, have thought differently on another occasion. Who knows?

One gripe: on the night, we were assured that a list of works performed would go up on the festival’s website, were it not there already. It was not. Moreover, at the time of writing, two days later, it still has not gone up. If a decision not to tell us were part of the concept, fair enough, whatever one’s thoughts on the matter, but that is not what the organiser told us. I assume the programme was the same as Greilsammer’s CD combining Scarlatti and Cage, but I cannot be sure. Most of the Scarlatti sonatas I did not know; I cannot, truth be told, remember which of the Cage sonatas were performed and when. Similarly regrettable was the lack of any sort of printed programme, even if only a piece of paper with a biography of a performer who had stepped in at short notice and whom some in the audience might not even have been expecting.

I do not wish, however, to close on such a note, so shall add that, for an encore, Greilsammer offered Scarlatti again, albeit on the prepared piano. How different did it sound? Again, many of those questions, many of those ideas found themselves restated; or, should one prefer – I am now unsure – they were restated, but by whom, and to what end?

Mark Berry

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