Imagine a piano that produces a cacophony of metallic sounds, almost as if it were invaded by an assortment of everyday objects.
This is the intriguing world of the prepared piano, a unique technique that has captivated avant-garde composers for decades, enabling them to create percussive effects and unconventional timbres.
In this post, we’re going to delve into the mysterious realm of the prepared piano and look at its history and some examples. Let’s get started.
So, What Exactly is a Prepared Piano?
A prepared piano is essentially a piano that has been modified by inserting various objects, called preparations, between or on the strings. These preparations can range from bolts and screws to rubber erasers, fabrics, and even cutlery.
The preparations can alter the piano’s sound in numerous ways, from muting strings to generating harmonics and overtones, creating a completely unique sound.
Here’s a great video from David Greilsammer explaining a prepared piano in action.
History of Prepared Piano
The prepared piano technique was pioneered by the acclaimed composer John Cage in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Cage sought a way to create percussive music using only a piano, and the prepared piano enabled him to achieve that goal.
The first prepared piano piece is thought to be Cage’s “Bacchanale” (1938). He had intended it to be for an ensemble of percussion instruments. But due to the size restraints of the performance room, he began experimenting with objects inside the piano to create a percussive sound.
Here is that piece:
Since then, the prepared piano has enjoyed a surge in popularity within the realm of contemporary classical music, with numerous composers incorporating it into their compositions. Among the best-known exponents of the prepared piano are Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and George Crumb.
Additionally, this innovative instrument has left its classical roots making its presence known in various genres such as jazz, rock, and electronic music.
Today, the prepared piano continues to enthrall composers and performers interested in exploring new sounds and textures.
The technique of preparing a piano has also inspired the development of other prepared instruments, such as the prepared guitar and the prepared harp. These instruments have expanded the horizons for musicians and composers, constantly pushing the boundaries of musical possibilities.
There are a number of different techniques that composers use to prepare the piano, depending on how they’re applied. Here are some of them.
Inserts are objects placed between the piano strings, altering the sound produced by the instrument. These objects can include screws, bolts, rubber bands, and paper clips. Composers and pianists use inserts to create new sounds and textures unattainable with a traditional piano.
Inserts can be arranged in various ways to generate different effects. For example, placing bolts and screws on the bass strings can create a percussive sound, while placing rubber bands on the treble strings can produce a buzzing or rattling sound.
Mutes are objects placed on the piano strings to dampen their vibrations, resulting in a muted or muffled sound. Mutes can be made from materials such as felt, rubber, or paper. They can be placed on specific strings or across the entire piano.
Composers and pianists use mutes to create a range of effects, from a soft and delicate sound to a more percussive and rhythmic sound. Mutes can also be used to evoke a sense of distance or space in the music.
The term extended techniques refer to a range of unconventional playing techniques used on the prepared piano.
These techniques can include playing the strings directly with hands or objects, plucking or strumming the strings, and using the pedals in unconventional ways.
Extended techniques can be used to create a wide range of sounds and effects, from gentle harmonics to aggressive percussive sounds. They require a high level of skill and experimentation on the part of the pianist.
Famous Prepared Piano Pieces
Since its invention, the prepared piano has been used by numerous composers to create unique and experimental sounds. Here are some examples of pieces composed for prepared piano.
“Sonatas and Interludes” by John Cage
“Sonatas and Interludes” is one of Cage’s most famous works for prepared piano. It consists of 16 sonatas and four interludes. As you can see in the video above, it has a lot of very specific preparations and can take a very long time to set up.
“Aeolian Harp” by Henry Cowell
Next is a piece by one of John Cage’s big influences, Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp. While it technically isn’t a prepared piano piece (as nothing is placed inside the piano), it’s certainly influenced Cage’s approach to writing for the piano.
Cowell has the performer strum the piano like a harp having the performer play the strings inside. If you weren’t watching the video, you’d never guess they were playing the piano!
“Amores” by John Cage
Another great example of prepared piano is Cage’s “Amores.” Made up of four movements, the first and last are written for prepared piano, while their 2nd and 3rd are for a percussion trio.
With the piano being prepared, you could argue that this piece is four a percussion quartet but have a listen for yourself.
“Sonata X” by John Cage
From “Sonatas and Interludes,” “Sonata X,” or “Sonata No. 10,” is another innovative prepared piano work by Cage. Written between 1946 and 1948, he wrote a collection of 16 sonatas and four interludes.
This collection was inspired by Cage’s interest in Indian philosophy, specifically the exploration of the “rasas” or emotional states. The pieces aim to convey a range of emotions and are considered groundbreaking in their approach to both composition and the use of the prepared piano.
“Sonata X” stands out as one of the movements within this larger work, showcasing the innovative and unconventional methods that Cage employed throughout his career.
“Improvisation” by Hauschka
Next, we have a more recent prepared piano piece by Hauschka, the artistic name of German composer and pianist Volker Bertelmann.
Hauschka’s works often encompass a wide range of styles and genres, drawing on elements from classical, electronic, and experimental music. As you can see by listening to the video above, it’s very different from Cage’s music.
So, there you have it. The prepared piano. While it may not be for everyone (let’s be honest, it does sound a bit weird), it is an important technique that has contributed to the development of modern music.
It has inspired many composers to experiment with unconventional sounds and has opened up new avenues for musical expression. The prepared piano continues to captivate musicians and audiences alike, offering a fresh perspective on the capabilities of the piano as an instrument.
Why don’t you have a go at preparing your own piano and see what interesting sounds you can come up with – just be careful not to break anything!