prepared piano is a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects
between or on the strings.
first composer to use it extensively was John Cage, who is often credited with
inventing the instrument. Cage himself said he was greatly inspired by Henry
Cowell's experiments with the so called string piano, where the performer plucks
and scrapes the strings of the piano directly.
Cage's use, the preparations are typically nuts, bolts and pieces of rubber to
be lodged between and entwined around the strings. Some preparations make
duller, more percussive sounds than usual, while others create sonorous
bell-like tones. Additionally, the individual parts of a preparation like a nut
loosely screwed onto a bolt will vibrate themselves, adding their own unique
sound. By placing the preparation between two of the strings on a note which has
three strings assigned to it, it is possible to change the timbre of that note
by depressing the soft pedal on the piano (which moves the hammers so they
strike only two strings instead of all three).
it is possible to prepare an upright piano in this way to some extent, it is far
easier, and far more common, on a grand piano.
phrase prepared piano is also sometimes applied to other kinds of
preparations. Lou Harrison, for example, used something he called the tack
piano, a piano with small nails stuck in the hammers to produce a more
percussive sound. Conlon Nancarrow adapted his player pianos in a similar way,
covering the hammers with metal and leather.
Cowell (March 11, 1897 - December 10, 1965) was an American composer and
teacher. He is considered one of the most influential of early 20th century
began to compose in his teens, producing the piano piece “The Tides of
Manaunaun”, which calls for the pianist to use his forearm to play many notes
at once. This is one of the first uses of the tone cluster in music, and he
continued to use it liberally in his later works.
1919 Cowell wrote and published New Musical Resources, a widely read
work on the variety techniques used in his own music. Shortly thereafter he
began to tour as a pianist, playing his own experimental works. Aeolian Harp
(1923) is one of his first pieces for what is termed the "string
piano" - rather than using the keys to play the instrument, the pianist
reaches inside the instrument and plucks and scrapes the strings directly.
interest in harmonic rhythm, as discussed in New Musical Resources led
him to commission Leon Theremin to invent the Rhythmicon or Polyrhythmophone,
a machine capable of playing periodic rhythms in proportion to the pitches and
vice versa. Studies of the musical cultures of
subsequently began to use indeterminacy or "elastic form" in works
like the Mosaic Quartet (where performers determine the order and
alternation of movements). He is often said to be instrumental in the
rediscovery of Charles Ives' music, and also promoted (published) the music of
Edgar Varese. His students included John Cage, George Gershwin and Lou Harrison.
Milton Cage (born September 5, 1912, died August 12, 1992) was an experimental
music composer and writer, notorious for 4′ 33″, often
described (somewhat erroneously) as "four and a half minutes of
silence." He was an early writer of aleatoric music (music where some
elements are left to chance), used instruments in non-standard ways and was an
electronic music pioneer.
1931, Cage began lessons in composition from Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg
(whom he "literally worshipped.") Schoenberg
told Cage he would tutor him for free on the condition he "devoted his life
to music." Cage readily agreed, but stopped lessons after two years when it
became clear to him that he had "no feeling for harmony."
began to experiment with percussion instruments and non-instruments and
gradually came to replace harmony as the basis of his music with rhythm. More
generally, he structured pieces according to the duration of sections.
late 1930s, he went to the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, Washington.
There he found work as an accompanist for dancers. He was asked to write some
music to accompany a dance by Syvilla Fort called Bacchanale. He wanted
to write a percussion piece, but there was no pit at the performance venue for a
percussion ensemble and he had to write for a piano. While working on the piece,
Cage experimented by placing a metal plate on top of the strings of the
instrument. He liked the sound this produced, and this eventually led to his
inventing the prepared piano, in which screws, bolts, strips of rubber and other
objects are placed between the strings of the piano to change the character of
the instrument. It is likely that he was influenced by his old teacher Henry
Cowell who also treated the piano in a non-standard way, asking performers to
strum the strings with their fingers, for example. The Sonatas and
Interludes of 1946-48 are widely seen as his greatest work for prepared
began to use the I Ching in the composition of his music in order to introduce
an element of chance over which he would have no control. He used it, for
example, in the Music of Changes for solo piano in 1951, to determine
which notes should be used and when they should sound.
late 1940s, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic
chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor will
absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes.
They are also generally soundproofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear
silence, but as he wrote later, he "heard two sounds, one high and one low.
When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high
one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in
circulation." Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a
place where he expected there to be no sound, and yet there was some.
"Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my
death. One need not fear about the future of music." The realization as he
saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of his most
notorious piece, 4′ 33″.
premiere of the three-movement 4′ 33″ was given by David
Tudor on August 29, 1952, at Woodstock, New York as part of a recital of
contemporary piano music. The audience saw him sit at the piano, and lift the
lid of the piano. Some time later, without having played any notes, he closed
the lid. A while after that, again having played nothing, he lifted the lid. And
after a period of time, he closed the lid once more and rose from the piano. The
piece had passed without a note being played, in fact without Tudor or anyone
else on stage having made any deliberate sound, although he timed the lengths on
a stopwatch while turning the pages of the score. While nobody produces sound
deliberately, there will nonetheless be sounds in the concert hall (just as
there were sounds in the anechoic chamber at Harvard). It is these sounds,
unpredictable and unintentional, that are to be regarded as constituting the
music in this piece. The piece remains controversial to this day, and is seen as
challenging the very definition of music.
Nancarrow (October 27, 1912 - August 10, 1997) was an American composer who took
Mexican citizenship in 1955. He is remembered almost exclusively for the pieces
he wrote for the player piano.
was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He played trumpet in a jazz band in his youth,
before studying music first in Cincinnati, Ohio and later in Boston,
Massachusetts with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Nicolas Slonimsky. Later
still, he went to New York City and studied with Henry Cowell.
the Spanish Civil War broke out, Nancarrow went to Spain to fight against
Francisco Franco. While there, he joined the Communist party, as a result of
which he was refused an American passport after his return. He subsequently
moved to Mexico City, which remained his home until his death.
Mexico, where the contemporary classical music scene was poorly funded, and
there were even fewer musicians capable of performing his works, the need to
find an alternative way of having his pieces performed became even more
pressing. He found the answer in the player piano, with its ability to produce
extremely complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far beyond the abilities of
had a machine custom built to enable him to punch the piano rolls by hand. The
machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and
using it was very hard work, and very slow. He also adapted the player pianos,
increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism, and covering
the hammers with leather or metal so as to produce a more percussive sound.