Contributed by Joey Tan (BMUS3, YST)
A piece constructed out of silence, the inserting of screws, bolts and coins into pianos, and the tossing of coins to make musical decisions – we have all been taught to laugh at the musical processes of John Cage at some point or other in our lives. A pioneer in experimental and indeterminate music, Cage’s compositions certainly challenge the traditional. Take a listen to Cage’s compositions such as 4’33”, Williams Mix and But what about the noise… and you’ll see why.
These seemingly absurd works, however, come from the perspective of an American composer and music theorist interested in East and South Asian cultures, Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism. Cage was also a lecturer, writer, painter, and an avid mycologist. If we discard our preconceptions of music, we would find a great deal of fresh ideas and interesting perspectives in the music of John Cage. These ideas and new approaches led to many innovations – one of them being the prepared piano.
The birth of the prepared piano is an interesting story. Cage collaborated heavily with dancers in his lifetime, most notably with choreographer Merce Cunningham who was also his lifelong partner. These collaborations contributed greatly to the development of modern dance.
In the 1930s, Cage was asked to write a piece for dancer Syvilla Fort for her performance of Bacchanale. He had wanted to compose for percussion ensemble but due to spatial constraints of the theatre, Cage had no choice but to compose for solo piano. He inserted pie plates and nails into the piano, before figuring out that screws and bolts would render a timbre most suitable for this purpose. With just one preparation, two sounds could be produced; with the una corda, the option of not striking the third string of any note was available. And thus, the prepared piano was born.
Cage expanded his arsenal of preparations to include bolts and screws of different lengths, pennies, weather stripping, rubber, and plastic strips, enabling an entire percussion setup to be available to a single pianist. Many pieces emerged out of the prepared piano, which include the famous Sonatas and Interludes as well as Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos.
“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.” – John Cage
Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos was written in 1945 for the virtuosic duo Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold. Although it was written for the concert stage and not dance, its driving rhythms and energy make one feel like getting up and moving. It is a fun and technically demanding work, especially the third movement which races through at breakneck speed.
The piece comprises three movements in a fast-slow-fast order. The influences of oriental music are evident in the piece; with the piano preparations, the timbre of the piano is altered to sound like the resonant metallophones of a gamelan ensemble, and its percussive nature is emphasized. The rhythmic structures also hint at the use of the Indian tala, where beats are grouped together. In the second movement, some phrases sound like a player improvising on Indian drums. Cross rhythms are present throughout the piece, giving rise to tension, excitement and even chaos.
Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos was premiered in New York in 1945. Subsequently, in 1947, Merce Cunningham choreographed Dromenon to this piece of Cage’s.
“When I first placed objects between piano strings, it was with the desire to possess sounds (to be able to repeat then). But, as the music left my home and went from piano to piano and from pianist to pianist, it became clear that not only are two pianists essentially different from one another, but two pianos are not the same either. Instead of the possibility of repetition, we are faced in life with the unique qualities and characteristics of each occasion.
The prepared piano, impressions I had from the work of artist friends, study of Zen Buddhism, ramblings in fields and forests of mushrooms, all led me to the enjoyment of things as they come, as they happen, rather than as they are possessed or kept or forced to be.” – John Cage
I invite you to listen with openness, for behind the absurdity in Cage’s music lies an expanded sound world, stimulating ideas, great wisdom, and a good-natured sense of humour.