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History of the Prepared Piano

Prepared for
Dr. Ross Osmun

By
Kyle Ross

April 24, 2015

History of the Prepared Piano

Through the twentieth century, the unprecedented amount of new musical aesthetics sought out to develop
and integrate inventive methods of writing music. The exploration of ways to organize musical elements, e.g.,
serialism, synthesis of foreign or forgotten folk with the classical traditions, as in exoticism or nationalism, or
the emphasis of sound as colour or effect in musique concrte, are examples of techniques recognized.
Through this period of invention, new instruments such as the Theremin emerged from the synthesizer
revolution and the notion of what could be considered an instrument also became resonant within
composers (Varses Ionisation calls for two anvils, for example). The twentieth century avant-garde was free
to challenge and experiment with timbre, arguably as a result of the emancipation of dissonance through the
works of atonality, tone clusters and disregard of function in harmony. One composer, who encapsulates the
experimental nature of the twentieth century in aesthetic, instrumentation, extended technique and
philosophy of music, is John Cage. Consequently, Cage, alongside other twentieth century composers, like
Harry Partch, developed instruments to satisfy their timbral needs; in a similar fashion to how the antecedent
era romanticism shaped musical form from the composers expressive needs.
With focus on John Cage, his greatest contribution to timbre comes from his self-coined prepared piano. With
many pieces written for the tempered instrument by multiple composers and recitals featuring such works,
the prepared piano is not only another chapter in the history of the piano, but in tempered instruments as a
whole. Recent publications of scores and books on how to prepare a piano, such as the award winning
Doctoral thesis John Cages Prepared Piano: The Nuts and Bolts, by Tzenka Dianova, in 2008, show that
interest in the prepared piano is still found within pianists and academics. The following essay traces the
history of the instrument through the pre-cursors and influences on Cage to the instrument today.

Tampering and Extended Techniques before the Prepared Piano


The First Appearance
The prepared piano was first introduced in a private performance by Erik Satie (an important influence
on Cage) of his piece Le pige de Meduse, in 1913 (Dianova, 2008, 49). Although the score does not call
for any modifications to the instrument, it is acknowledged that Satie used sheets of paper between the
strings of the piano in order to produce a more mechanical sound for the premier.

Exotic Percussion
Arguably one of the first pieces to feature a prepared piano in the score is Maurice Delages Ragamalika.
Delage was student of Ravel and a member of Les Apaches, granting him a surrounding of influential
composers, artists and music critics. Much like his contemporary Darius Milhaud, another French composer
and a member of Les Six, Delages music was influenced by his travels to foreign countries. Delage travelled
to India and was heavily influenced by the classical music of the country; he thus wrote Quatre pomes
hindous (19121913) and Ragamalika (1914). In order to imitate the percussive sound of an Indian drum, the
score suggests placing a light piece of cardboard beneath the strings of B2.

Figure 1: Ragamalika; published in


Paris by Durand & Cie.

This emphasis on exoticism especially in percussion is very representative of John Cage; an example of
Cages interest, predating the established prepared piano, is his piece First Construction (in Metal) where the
instrumentation calls for Japanese and Balinese gongs and Chinese and Turkish cymbals. In The Prepared
Piano Music of John Cage: Towards an Understanding of Sounds and Preparations, by Anderson, Simon Peter,
it is argued that the structure of such early percussion works is similar to the structure of prepared piano
music.

String Piano
Henry Cowell is credited as being one of the most influential people in Cages life. Cowell and Arnold
Schoenberg were both teachers to Cage, but while Schoenbergs major influence on him only lasted during
his early years of tone-row works (e.g., Sonata for Clarinet), Cowells experiments with the piano as an
instrument led Cage to further develop techniques that are synonymous with him today.
String piano, coined by Cowell, is a technique he pioneered in the 1920s and popularly showcased in his
exclusively string piano pieces Aeolian Harp (1923) and The Banshee (1925). The technique refers to playing
inside the piano by plucking, sweeping, scraping or muting the strings. Also, keys may be depressed and held
silently to create chords or clusters and the sustain and damper pedal may be used for various effects. It is
important to notice that string piano does not make use of inserting foreign objects in the piano. In
relationship to many elements of string piano, such as plucking string or muting strings, have very distinct
percussive effects on the timbre. However, Cowell was not the first to experiment with the percussiveness of
playing inside a piano: according to Micheal Hicks, in Henry Cowell, Bohemian (Music in American Life), Percy
Grainger (Australian Composer) was the first composer to incorporate playing on the strings in the classical
tradition. As described in Grainger The Modernist, by Suzanne Robinson of the University of Melbourne,
Graingers orchestral piece In a Nutshell (1916) had the pianist strike strings of the piano with a mallet,
instead of having the keys perform the task. The score for the piece also demonstrates great attention to the
percussion section, highlighting the composers affinity to percussion. For example:

Figures 2 and 3: In a Nutshell;


published in New-York by G. Schirmer
Inc.

Grainger and Cowell were both friends and rivals as with many composer relationships but also strong
influences on each other. One unmistakable observation is how they both share interest in percussion and
that Cage was passionate about it. In fact, percussion is the core reason for the development of the prepared
piano, as will be explained further down. Beforehand, the following is an example of Cowells string piano
that influenced Cage:

Figures 4: The
Banshee; published
in Los Angeles by
W. A. Quincke
Company

Undoubtedly, such pieces did not only inspire Cage to venture inside the instrument, but also introduced him
to graphical notation.

Cages Piano Experiments


Following ideas from Schoenberg, Cage desired to break away from the constraints of harmony, however, he
felt that using instruments designed for tonality was counter-intuitive to atonality. In A Composers
Confessions, a book written by Cage describing how he came to write music, he writes:
I was convinced overnight that although twelve tone music was excellent theoretically, in making use of the
instruments which had been developed for tonal music, it had continually to be written negatively rather than
straightforwardly. It had always to avoid the harmonic relationships which were natural to tonal instruments,
which instruments it did not so much as use as usurp. I was convinced that for atonal music new instruments
proper to it were required. (p.31)
In this regard, the absence of clear pitch in percussions and percussive effects allowed him to develop and
express his take on atonality. Cages percussion pieces Quartet (1935) and Trio (1936) mark the composers
first experiments with non-musical sounds, however he still continued writing with tone-rows until 1938 (e.g.,
Metamorphosis for solo piano). In 1939s Imaginary Landscape No.1, the composer continues to attempt to
achieve his instrumentation ideals by using two variable-speed turntables, recordings of pure sine waves,
cymbal and inspired by Cowells string piano a muted piano by playing on the inside with the palm of the
hand, alongside other string piano techniques such as sweeping the bass string register. Having successfully
synthesized percussion music and extended piano techniques, Cage wrote his Second Construction, in 1940,
for percussion quartet and prepared string piano; this was the first time he used fixed preparation inside the
piano. In this piece, a metal rod is to be applied to the strings, screws to be inserted between A and E and to
mute strings with cardboard similarly to Ragamalika. The metal preparations were introduced to give the
effects of a gong and the cardboard to produce the thud of a drum. The Second Construction is not widely
accepted as the beginning of Cages signature prepared piano, as it is truly prepared string piano, i.e., the
performer is not playing on the keys.

The Prepared Piano: Bacchanale


In 1940, two months after the Second Construction, Cage wrote the first prepared Piano piece, the
Bacchanale. Two years prior, Cage was living in San-Francisco with his wife. Henry Cowell arranged one of his
students, Lou Harrison, to meet with John Cage, as, according to Cowell, they both shared the same interest
in percussion and dance 1. Harrison was the dance accompanist for the Mills College Physical Education
Department in California. At Mills, he met Bonnie Bird, head of the dance department at the Cornish College
of the Arts in Seattle, the same year he met Cage. Bird offered Harrison a job as accompanist for her dance
group at Cornish, but he declined and recommended Cage instead.
Cage accepted the offer and thus moved to Seattle, where he worked with Syvilla Fort, an American dancer
and choreographer who was a student of Bird. Fort was choreographing a dance performance with an African
character named Bacchanale and asked Cage, three or four days before the performance, to write music for
the choreography 2. At the time, the composer had two main genres of composition: piano or orchestral
music using the tone-row technique and music for percussion ensembles. The former genre was abandoned
once he could not create a tone-row that provided an African flavour. He then intended the piece to be for
percussions, but realized an ensemble would not fit on Cornish stage. With minimal time to write the music
for the premiere, he used preparing techniques he experimented with from his Second Construction to add
percussive effects to certain notes when played by the keys. Contrasting to string piano, playing with the keys
allowed more control on rhythm, pitch and single percussive effects, allowing for dance motives. The
following is what Cage had to say about the process:

1
2

Patterson, David Wayne. John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950. New York: Routledge, 2002. 48. Print.
Cage, John. Foreword. The Well-prepared Piano. By Bunger, Richard. Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music, 1973. Print.

Before I left the Cornish School I made the prepared piano. I needed percussion instruments for music for a
dance that had an African character by Syvilla Fort. But the theatre in which she was to dance had no wings
and there was no pit. There was only a small grand piano built in the front and left of the audience. At the
time I either wrote twelve-tone music for piano or I wrote percussion music. There was no room for
instruments. I couldnt find an African twelve tone row. I finally realized I had to change the piano. I did so by
placing objects between the strings. The piano was transformed into a percussion orchestra having the
loudness, say, of a harpsichord. 3

Figures 5: Example of a piano prepared


with screws.

Cage, John. "John Cage: An Autobiographical Statement." Soutwest Review 76, 1990. Original Print. Now found online at
<http://johncage.org/autobiographical_statement.html>.

The Setup
The preparation for the Bacchanale has twelve notes tempered with; screws, nuts and strips of fibrous
material between strings to prepare the notes. Cage developed a system called a Piano Table of Preparation
to write down the preparation scheme of the instrument. Information on which pitch to be prepared is given
through columns designated the materials, between which strings of a note the material should be placed
and at what distance they should be placed from the damper. The symbol ** indicates that the performer
decides the positions and size of the material, in order to encourage experimentations. This might be to
reflect the following thoughts he had about consistency:
When I first placed objects between piano strings, it was with the desire to possess sounds (to be able to
repeat then). But, as the music left my home and went from piano to piano and from pianist to pianist, it
became clear that not only are two pianists essentially different from one another, but two pianos are not the
same either. Instead of the possibility of repetition, we are faced in life with the unique qualities and
characteristics of each occasion. 4

Cage, John. Foreword. The Well-prepared Piano. By Bunger, Richard. Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music, 1973. Print.

Figure 6: Piano Preparation Table for


Cages Sonatas and Interludes
(1946-1948).

After Cage
Examples of Influences on Other Composers
1950 marked a turning point for Cage as he challenged the concepts of music, beginning with his questioning
on silence and indeterminacy. As the 433, Music of Changes, era of Cages output is more renown, it
important to highlight the music influenced by prepared piano.
In 1949, Cage won an award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters for the invention of the prepared
piano, establishing it as a recognized technique.
Toshiro Mayuzumi, a Japanese composer who attended the Paris Conservatoire national suprieur de
musique, was interested in Western avant-garde music. In 1957 he wrote Pieces for prepared piano and
string quartet where the piano is prepared with nuts, bolts and eraser wedges following positions from a
preparation table.
George Crumb, renowned for his use of extended techniques, such as amplifying instruments with
microphones, used both prepared piano and string piano. Unlike Cage, however, pieces such as the
Makrokosmos volumes (1972-1979) could have the performer preparing the piano during performance (i.e.,
adding or removing materials while the performer plays).
In more recent years, Volker Bertelmann (known under his artist name Hauschka), a german pianist, is
notable for using and expanding upon the prepared piano by using motorized objects that continuously
vibrate certain strings, bells, chimes and ping-pong balls that jump around strings. Albums such as the 2005
released The Prepared Piano and the 2007 album Versions of the Prepared Piano feature the prepared piano
as solo instrument.

Influence on other instruments: the prepared guitar


With the preparation relying on inserting objects between strings non-permanently, other composers
experimented with preparing other instruments with strings. Arguably the most notable is the prepared
guitar.
Keith Row, inspired by American painter Jackson Pollock, who abandoned traditional methods to create his
own style, and inspired by Cages experiments, decided to develop the prepared guitar (also called tabletop
guitar) in the late 1960s. A prepared guitar is typically in the electric family, in order to control volume and
effects over extended techniques through the amplification of the pickups, similarly to Crumbs use of
microphones in the piano. The term tabletop guitar comes from how the instrument is typically played: the
guitar is laid on a table. The player then proceeds to pluck, strum or scrape the strings in a fashion
reminiscent to string piano. Also, knocking on various locations of the body to produce percussive sounds and
taking advantage of the electromagnetic pickups sensitivity are techniques used.

Figure 7: Example of a
prepared guitar

Conclusion
Early experiments in the beginning of the twentieth century, by inserting a piece of paper or cardboard, and
string piano led Cage to pioneer a comprehensive and reputable system in the 1940s for a completely new
way to see the piano functionally (percussive). Having written approximately 32 works for the prepared piano,
its success and uniqueness inspired other composers to write and expand upon the instrument. While Cage
pioneered the philosophy of silence and randomness, the prepared piano marks one of his first signature
contributions to music.
With popular music, such as the works of Aphex Twin (Richard David James), incorporating prepared piano
and with new literature and media discussing how to effectively prepare a piano, the instruments history is
still young.

Bibliography
Book:

Dianova, Tzenka. John Cage's Prepared Piano: The Nuts and Bolts. Victoria: Mutasis, 2008.

Robinson, Suzanne. Grainger the Modernist. Burlington: Ashgate, 2015.

Hicks, Michael. Henry Cowell, Bohemian. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2002.

Patterson, David Wayne. John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950. New York:
Routledge, 2002.

Bunger, Richard. The Well-prepared Piano. Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music, 1973.

Thesis:

Ferreira, Inara. The Prepared Piano of John Cage: A New Level of Hearing the Sonatas and Interludes.
Boca Raton: Florida Atlantic University, 2010.

Anderson, Simon Peter. The Prepared Piano Music of John Cage: Towards an Understanding of
Sounds and Preparations. Huddersfield: U of Huddersfield, 2012.

Website:

Cage, John. "John Cage: An Autobiographical Statement." Soutwest Review 76, 1990. Original Print.
Now found online at <http://johncage.org/autobiographical_statement.html>.

"John Cage." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 23 Apr. 2015

<http://www.encyclopedia.com>.