Prepared Piano

Prepared Piano

Background information

The prepared piano is often regarded[weasel words] a kind of random technique, mainly popularised by John Cage. However this is a widespread[citation needed] misunderstanding of the technique. Richard Bunger wrote a book The Well Prepared Piano in which he explains how Cage prepared his pianos and even which pianos are suitable, because of the deviation of string lengths within different types of brands. Bunger also clarifies why the preparations were done in such ways, in other words, what sound it causes per adaption. The timbre of the instrument changes heavily when you prepare, but also how you prepare. Much of the technique is related to the harmonic positions of the strings. For instance a preparation on 1/2 of the string length causes a different sound than on 1/3. Cage was aware of this and made use of this knowledge. In other words, the preparations don’t cause a random sound as often assumed.

History

John Cage coined the term prepared piano and was undoubtedly the composer who made the technique famous. He credited Henry Cowell and, to a lesser extent, Erik Satie, for contributing to the idea, but it is unclear if Cage was aware of many other precedents described below.

Since the later days of the harpsichord (17th18th century), stringed keyboard instruments could have registers, for instance giving a drier or more ample sound when the instrument’s stop was pulled (a stop in the meaning of a similar disposition for organs, known as organ stops).

Fortepiano

Main article: Fortepiano

When the first pianos were invented around the beginning of the 18th century, the only “coloring” of the sounds produced by the instrument resulted from how the individual keys were pressed (loud = forte, or softly = piano, giving the name to the instrument: fortepiano). A type of register, first implemented with a stop above the keyboard, which became a standard device for pianos in the second half of the 18th century, was engaging or disengaging the muting of the strings after the release of a key. Only by the end of the 18th century, the muting mechanism was triggered with a pedal, after an intermediate period when this register was operated by the pianist’s knees.

Reed stop

But the idea of harpsichord-like registers lived on: in the early 19th century some pianos were provided with a reed stop, which lowered a strip of paper onto the strings. This led musicologists such as Tom Beghin to believe that the technique of placing a strip of paper on piano strings would probably have originated before it was standardised as a register operated with stops, and that, for instance, Mozart’s Alla Turca can safely be played with a piece of paper on some of the strings as a historical interpretation (see http://www.klara.be/html/klara_cds.html or http://streampower.belgacom.be/vrt/klara/beghin_mozart.mp3 for an audio example of this Alla Turca played on a prepared rebuilt authentic Mozart piano, in Tom Beghin’s interpretation).

Turkish stop

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, Turkish music was so popular that piano manufacturers made special pianos with a Turkish stop, also called the military or Janissary stop. The player would press a pedal that caused a bell to ring and/or a padded hammer to strike the soundboard in imitation of a bass drum. The Turkish stop was popular for playing the famous Mozart Rondo alla Turca, K. 331.

Satie’s Pige de Mduse

In the piano version of his Pige de Mduse (1913 or 1914) Erik Satie’s score called for placing sheets of paper on the piano strings in order to imitate the mechanical sound of a monkey puppet that figured in the play.

Villa-Lobos’s Choros no. 8

In his 1925 work for two pianos and large orchestra, Heitor Villa-Lobos added to his score instructions to the pianist to insert pieces of paper between the strings and the hammers to attain a certain sonority.

Luthal

Main article: Luthal

In the 1920s, a new invention was presented, the Luthal, which extended the register possibilities of a piano to its maximum, producing cimbalon-like sounds in some registers, exploiting harmonics of the strings when pulling other register-stops, and also some registers making other objects, which were lowered just above the strings, resound. But that instrument became obsolete before it became popular, partly due to most of the mechanics of the instrument being too sensitive, needing constant adjustment. The only pieces in the general repertoire to feature the Luthal are L’Enfant et les Sortilges (19205) and Tzigane (1924) by Maurice Ravel, performances of which tend to substitute an upright piano, either prepared with paper or straight.

Ragamalika

Another precedent to the prepared piano was an experiment by the French composer Maurice Delage (18791961): his Ragamalika (191222), based on the classical music of India, calls for a piece of cardboard to be placed under the B-flat in the second line of the bass clef to dampen the sound, imitating the sound of an Indian drum.

String piano

Main article: String piano

In the 1920s, American composer Henry Cowell coined the term string piano”to describe direct manipulation of piano strings, such as by plucking them with fingers or stroking them with a brush.

John Cage and later composers

See also: Works for prepared piano by John Cage

John Cage was a composer who used prepared piano extensively and is credited with inventing the instrument. Cage popularized the prepared piano, particularly by the seminal Sonatas and Interludes, and inspired many other composers. Arvo Prt’s popular Tabula Rasa (1977) is one of the better-known compositions to make extensive use of a prepared piano.

Cage first prepared a piano when he was commissioned to write music for “Bacchanale”, a dance by Syvilla Fort in 1938. For some time previously, Cage had been writing exclusively for a percussion ensemble, but the hall where Fort dance was to be staged had no room for a percussion group. The only instrument available was a single grand piano. After some consideration, Cage said that he realized it was possible o place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra … With just one musician, you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of the piano if you have at your disposal an exploded keyboard. (Cage and Charles, 38) Cage would often quip that by preparing a piano he left it in better condition than he found it.

Cage himself said he was greatly inspired by Henry Cowell’s experiments with the so-called string piano, in which the performer plucks and scrapes the strings of the piano directly.

In 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 such as 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 that 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 (the soft pedal is traditionally called “una corda” on a grand). Other prepared piano sounds can be reminiscent of mbiras, marimbas, bells, wood blocks, Indonesian gendrs from a gamelan, or many other sounds less easily defined.

Although it is possible to prepare an upright piano, it is far easier, and far more common, on a grand piano.

On some pianos, a bar is installed above the hammers and activated by the center pedal. This bar can be furnished with felthich will significantly mute the sound of the piano (a practice mute) or strips of cloth tape with metal attached to the ends, and the hammers will hit the metal bits onto the string. This is sometimes called a mandolin attachmentlthough mandolin players would likely object that the sound is nothing like a mandolin. This gives a sound similar to the tack piano, but it can instantly be returned to a regular piano sound by releasing the center pedal.

In classical music, the American composer Lou Harrison called for tack piano in some of his compositions, primarily for its clarity of tone. The composer Conlon Nancarrow adapted his player pianos in a similar way, covering the hammers of his pianos with metal bands and hardened leather strips.

More recent composers to use prepared pianos include Sophie Agnel, Koka Nikoladze, Michael Staley, Philip Corner, Roberto Carnevale, Carson Kievman, Jason Moran, Marina Leonardi, Stephen Scott and George Aroshidze. Andrea Neumann takes an extreme approach to piano preparation, having gradually dismantled pianos until the wooden frame and piano strings are all that remain.

Australian composers Erik Griswold and Anthony Pateras have further developed the potential of the prepared piano in an improvisational context, as well as exploring the microtonal possibilities of the medium, while Ross Bolleter has taken the idea into an innovative directionxploring the use of ruined pianos, or pianos decayed by weather and time.

American composer Chris Brown created a type of prepared electric piano, the gazamba from the shell of a Wurlitzer electric piano. American composer Eric Glick Rieman composed extensively for prepared Rhodes pianos.

Tack Piano

Main article: Tack piano

The phrase prepared piano is also sometimes applied to other kinds of preparations. The tack piano is a piano that has been altered by inserting thumbtacks or small nails into the striking end of each hammer, so that the instrument will produce a more percussive sound and brighter timbre. The resulting tone often resembles the sound of a very old and uncared-for piano. The tack piano has been used primarily in honky-tonk-style piano playing, or to make a piano sound like an antique piano that might have been heard in a saloon or brothel around the early 20th century. The application of tacks is generally discouraged by piano technicians as the tacks can drop off the hammers and lodge in the strings or jam the mechanism. On normal pianos, felt coverings on the hammers will harden with age (though not usually for at least several decades), yielding a characteristic tinny sound. This can be cured by softening the hammers with a device consisting of multiple needles, resembling a comb. Where the felt is too far gone, it can be simply replaced.

In popular music

“All Tomorrow’s Parties” from The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), John Cale prepared his piano with a chain of paper clips.

The Flying Lizards’ version of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”. Featuring a piano prepared with small pieces of tin and phone books, the minimalist song had a unique sound which turned it into a huge hit in the early 1980s. It is now often used in advertisements.[citation needed]

On David Bowie’s 1979 album Lodger, Brian Eno used a looped prepared piano to provide the rhythmic basis of the track “African Night Flight.”[citation needed]

Ernst Horn from the German group Deine Lakaien uses a prepared upright piano during live concerts, most notably during the song “The Mirror Men.”[citation needed]

In 1994, Tori Amos used a prepared upright piano for “Bells for Her” on her album Under the Pink, which was also played on a prepared piano for the second half of that album’s live tour.[citation needed]

Richard D. James (better known as Aphex Twin) used a prepared piano on his 2001 album drukqs, recorded by programming a MIDI-controlled Yamaha Disklavier.[citation needed] Live versions of two of the pieces can be heard on the 2006 CD Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters, performed by Clive Williamson.

Artist Ben Folds recorded numerous songs using a tack piano as well. Additionally, he achieved the percussive, almost computer-like effects on his song “Free Coffee” (from his 2008 album Way to Normal) by placing Altoids tins on top of the strings of a grand piano.[citation needed]

Denman Maroney performs on what he has dubbed hyperpiano, which “involves stopping, sliding, bowing, plucking, striking and strumming the strings with copper bars, aluminum bowls, rubber blocks, plastic boxes and other household objects.”

Chris Butler’s The Waitresses used prepared piano on its song “No Guilt.”[citation needed]

Tom Constanten of the Grateful Dead used prepared-piano techniques on “That’s it for the Other One,” the opening track on the group second studio album, Anthem of the Sun, which was released in 1968.[citation needed]

American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau used prepared piano in his recording of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” on his album Largo. The prepared piano parts were actually played by guitarist Jon Brion and percussionist Jim Keltner.[citation needed]

Swedish jazz pianist Esbjrn Svensson used prepared piano techniques on the songs “The Gold-hearted miner” and “Brewery of Beggars” on his 2006 album Tuesday Wonderland.[citation needed]

Christine McVie, former pianist of Fleetwood Mac, used a prepared upright piano (metal bar attachment) on “Sara” from the album Tusk.[citation needed] A piano like this was also used on the Tusk Tour.

Terry Adams, pianist of NRBQ, released an album titled Love Letter To Andromeda in 2008. The album features six songs performed on prepared piano.[citation needed]

Eddie Van Halen uses a prepared piano on the song “Strung Out” from Van Halen’s album Balance.[citation needed]

A tack piano is used in the song “Lovers in Japan” by Coldplay on the album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, while a distant-sounding, heavily reverberated tack piano can be heard on its song “Life in Technicolor II.”[citation needed]

Prepared piano is used on the 1975 album Rubycon by the German electronic music group Tangerine Dream.[citation needed]

Jerry Dammers of The Specials plucked the strings of his piano in the intro and instrumental sections of “Rat Race” and can be seen doing so in the music video.[citation needed]

Noah and the Whale use prepared piano in the song “Our Window” from their 2009 album “The First Days of Spring[citation needed]

Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim used a prepared piano to perform demos of some of his compositions (including the cut song “Prayer”) for his 1976 musical Pacific Overtures.

See also

Piano extended technique

Notes

^ Anna Stella Schic (1987). Villa-Lobos, Souvenirs de l’Indien Blanc, Actes Sud, p. 82.

^ Pasler, Jann (2000). “Race, Orientalism, and Distinction in the Wake of the ‘Yellow Peril’.” In Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music, ed. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, p. 107.

^ Mitchell, Tim Sedition and Alchemy : A Biography of John Cale, 2003, ISBN 0-7206-1132-6

^ “Philadelphia FRINGE Festival 2000 – Hyperpiano”. http://www.pafringe.com/F2000/reform/hyperpiano.htm. Retrieved 2005-12-23. 

Further reading

Bunger, Richard (1973). The Well-Prepared Piano. Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music Press

Frst-Heidtmann, Monika (1979). Das prparierte Klavier des John Cage. Gustav Bose Verlag Regensburg. ISBN 978-3-7649-2183-5.

Cage, John, and Daniel Charles (1981). For The Birds: John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles. Marion Boyers London. ISBN 0-7145-2690-8.

Dianova, Tzenka (2008). John Cage’s Prepared Piano: The Nuts & Bolts. Mutasis Books Victoria. ISBN 978-0-9809657-0-4.

External links

‘Are You Prepared’ 17-key Online Prepared Piano by Andreas Busk-Jepsen. Site includes free downloadable prepared piano sampler for Ableton Live, NI’s Kontakt and Logic’s EXS Sampler

The Sound Collector – The Prepared Piano of John Cage by Tim Ovens (PDF version).

If you build it, they will come! essay by Kyle Gann, includes video performance of preparation by Margaret Leng Tan (here).

Prepared Piano Sample Set – By Tom Gersic. Some free, others cheap

Prepared Piano Max/MSP-Object – By Dr. Stefan Bilbao, ported to Max/MSP by Thomas Resch

Jingle Bells on Prepared Piano – By George Aroshidze

Listening

Prepared piano demonstration and performance by Richard Bunger

Epitonic.com: John Cage performed by Margaret Leng Tan, featuring In the Name of the Holocaust

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