Listen to any one of John Cage’s works for solo prepared piano written in the 1940s and 1950s and you’re transported to curiously unorthodox world. The many different sounds you hear are generated not by a variety of individual instruments, but by one. An adapted piano, played by one person.
The composer had already found success in the 1930s with various dance groups at the University of California, Los Angeles – creating works for percussion ensemble and using the dancers as musicians – but he explored this fascination further when in 1937 he took up a post at the Cornish School in Seattle and collaborated with choreographer Sylvia Fort. Here, he responded to a lack of available space in one dance studio by transforming all the notes on a piano keyboard into a suite of percussive sounds. Bacchanale from 1938 is the first of these works for prepared piano.
The resulting sound world is a magical excursion into the imagination – sophisticated incidental music written for a minimalist-styled but nonetheless gripping science-fiction mystery.
Descriptively speaking, the prepared piano could be regarded as the mechanical equivalent of samplers and sound-editing software. Each key on Cage’s keyboard triggers a sound (not necessarily a ‘note’) with its own distinct percussive quality, just as sampled sounds are initiated by a sampler or software today. The difference is in the compelling mechanical quality to the sound: machinery and moving parts controlled by a human being. The sounds Cage creates in this way are myriad – barely discernible notes, knocks, and eerie dampened sounds. There’s a sense the instrument has fractured into its constituent parts. When combined with Cage’s strict, discernible rhythmic patterns, as in the First Interlude from the Sonatas and Interludes, the instrument takes on an altogether different, vaguely menacing character.
But it isn’t just the sounds that are intriguing – Cage’s beautifully laid-out charts and scores are a revelation. Open the score of the Sonatas and Interludes, and the first statement isn’t the music, but the hand-written chart explaining what should be placed where on each string - the ‘Table of Preparations’. There is a fragility to the writing font – perhaps pride or self-assurance – that makes the instructions a piece of art all in themselves, transforming Cage’s creations into a kind of adventure – an exploration of the unknown, guided by explicit instructions and a detailed route map. Indeed, such precision is required to prepare the instrument that preparation can take anywhere between two to three hours. Cage explains in a programme note that “All the factors of the piano preparation, objects and their positions, were found experimentally. They represent a choice determined by taste not reasoned relations.”
Cage’s works for solo prepared piano celebrate sound, highlighting how the conventions of western classical music had settled a comparatively narrow definition of music. Cage’s progressive creativity of the 1940s and 1950s could be seen in the context of the multi-faceted musical experiences on offer today as an excursion for the imagination.
Jon Jacob is a freelance journalist and writes the Thoroughly Good Blog about classical music. He also produces the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast featuring lively conversations between artists, composers, and commentators.
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