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An Introduction to the Prepared Piano and How to Notate It

John Cage prepares a piano. Image obtained courtesy of The New York Public Library.
John Cage prepares a piano. Image obtained courtesy of The New York Public Library.

American composer John Cage was arguably the most prolific composer of prepared-piano music and is often credited as having invented the prepared piano, so to speak.

While there were earlier instances of composers placing objects on the piano strings, or bypassing the keyboard in order to directly manipulate the strings in performance (most notably Henry Cowell), Cage was undeniably the first to make extensive use of piano preparations to create a compositional language around the practice, thus consolidating it. His musical contributions certainly catalyzed the establishment of the prepared piano repertoire to follow.

What is a prepared piano?

A prepared piano is a piano with objects (known as preparations) placed on, or in between the strings. The objects alter the timbre of the piano, muting strings, rattling, bringing out overtones, or creating harmonics.

In his prepared piano works, Cage experimented with different materials on the strings, such as screws, nuts, bolts, rubber, wood, weather stripping, bamboo, plastic, cloth, and a variety of household items.

In 1940, Cage was asked to compose music for a dance piece by Syvilla Fort called Bacchanale. At the time, he was writing primarily percussion and 12-tone music (he had previously studied with Arnold Schoenberg). Cage writes about the first time he prepared a piano:

“The Cornish Theatre in which Syvilla Fort was to perform had no space in the wings. There was also no pit. There was, however, a piano at one side in front of the stage. I couldn’t use percussion instruments for Syvilla’s dance, though, suggesting Africa, they would have been suitable; they would have left too little room for her to perform. I was obliged to write a piano piece.

I spent a day or so conscientiously trying to find an African 12-tone row. I had no luck. I decided that what was wrong was not me but the piano. I decided to change it.”

Cage goes on to describe how, in addition to studying with Arnold Schoenberg, he had studied with American composer Henry Cowell. Cowell is best known for his use of low-range tone clusters on pieces such as The Tides of Manaunaun (1917), in which he directs the performer to frequently place flat palms and forearms down on the keyboard. Cowell also made other innovative uses of the piano. Cage recalls how in Cowell’s piece The Banshee (1925), the composer would reach into the piano and rub his palms and fingers on the strings with the damper pedal wedged down or held down by an assistant.

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So, inspired by Cowell’s utilization of the internal mechanisms of the piano and attempting to write percussive music to be performed in a confined space for dance, Cage began his exploration of the prepared piano.

For all you composers reading this, note how Cage transformed a limitation — not enough space for a percussion ensemble or orchestra — into an innovation with limitless possibility.

In the liner notes for the recording of one of Cage’s most widely acclaimed pieces for prepared piano, Sonatas and Interludes, he wrote:

“Composing for the prepared piano is not a criticism of the instrument. I’m only being practical.”

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How is the prepared piano scored?

Different composers may develop or customize their own systems to indicate piano preparations, including graphic notation and text-based scores, but Cage’s scores serve as an excellent model. They include a key at the beginning of each piece that indicates the pitch, the desired object or material, which strings of a given pitch to place the preparation on or in between, and how far the preparation should be placed from the damper.

The performer first makes these preparations and then reads through the score, at times in deceptively simple-looking standard notation. Below is the preparations key for John Cage’s Totem Ancestor (1943):

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And here’s the first page of the score for the piece:

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Other Works

In For Prepared Piano (1951), composer Christian Wolff takes a different approach in writing for the prepared piano. Whereas Cage’s pieces can be rhythmic, dense, and, at times, mechanical sounding, Wolff focuses on dynamic variation and space.

This isn’t to say that Cage doesn’t allow for space or dynamic variation in his prepared piano works; he does, especially in his Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48). But his focus tends to be on rhythm and structure. Personally, the moments I find most striking in Cage’s work are the interesting rhythmic elements, the quick runs and embellishments, and the hypnotic grooves he establishes.

Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi (1929-1997) took an early dive into Western avant-garde art music. He was inspired by John Cage’s modern use of piano preparations to create spooky atmospheric sounds, which informed Mayuzumi’s film music for years to follow. Here is a piece of his from 1957:

In 1977, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt wrote Tabula Rasa, a double concerto for two solo violins, prepared piano, and a chamber orchestra.

The prepared piano has also been utilized by some avant-rockers from the latter half of the 20th century. John Cale incorporates piano preparations on the Velvet Underground & Nico’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (1967), and Brian Eno busts it out on “Little Fishes” (1975).

More recently, modern composers like Volker Bertlemann (a.k.a. Hauschka) and Mario Mariani have found new ways to create aesthetically adventurous composed applications for prepared piano. This contemporary work moves a bit away from the true avant-garde vision of Cage’s first experiments, and navigates towards a more emotively driven tonal palette.

Want to suggest other prepared pianists and composers to check out? Add them to the comments below!

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Ian Davis
Ian Davis

Ian Davis is a composer/arranger/teacher living in Brooklyn, NY and the instructor for Soundfly's signature course Orchestration for Strings. He's written orchestral arrangements for such indie luminaries as Feist, Daniel Rossen, My Brightest Diamond, Landlady, and others. He plays and tours with Landlady and Relatives. He is an associate teaching artist with the New York Philharmonic's Very Young Composer's program. His music can be heard here.