discovered via The Avant/Garde Diaries
When you place objects between or on the strings or hammers or dampers of a piano, you create what is known as a “prepared piano.” When the piano is played, the “preparations” create a resistance against the strings or hammers or dampers, changing the timbre of the instrument and creating a different sound than what is normally expected of a classic piano. Though the beginnings of the prepared piano are sometimes credited to Erik Satie and Heitor Villa-Lobos–these two musicians placed sheets of paper between piano strings for an affected noise–the name that receives the most recognition in regards to the instrument is John Cage, an American composer, music theorist, writer, and artist.
Cage describes his arrival to the creation of his prepared piano in the following account of composing a piece for Sylvia Fort in 1938:
I needed percussion instruments for music for a dance that had an African character by Syvilla Fort. But the theater in which she was to dance had no wings and there was no pit. There was only a small grand piano built in to the front and left of the audience. At the time I either wrote twelve‑tone music for piano or I wrote percussion music. There was no room for the instruments. I couldn’t find an African twelve tone row. I finally realized I had to change the piano. I did so by placing objects between the strings. The piano was transformed into a percussion orchestra having the loudness, say, of a harpsichord.
Cage’s passing in 1992 left room for a successor in the ways of prepared piano. Volker Bertelmann–better known as HAUSCHKA–pays homage to Cage by continuing the experimentation with piano transformation. HAUSCHKA uses bottle caps, plastic foil, parchment paper, duct tape, screws, and erasers among other things to manipulate the sonic compositions tinkering out of his enhanced instrument.
It all began in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when HAUSCHKA became interested in electronica music, seeking a way to somehow emulate it without the electricity. He recollects the process:
It was during this period that he became more and more fascinated with electronic music, developing a particular interest in stripping back anything that he considered redundant within his compositions, until the obsession led to him trying to achieve a similar effect without the use of electricity at all. He discovered that placing material within a piano opened the doors to a whole new sonic world in which he could transform his instrument so that it loosely replicated the sounds of all sorts of others, whether bass guitar, gamelan or the hi-hat cymbal of a drumkit.
Don’t fret if you don’t have a piano handy to tamper the dampers of your own piano because over at John Cage’s official website they’ve created an iPhone app that allows you to play meticulously sampled sounds of John Cage’s work! It features a piano prepared with the actual materials used by John Cage in the preparations for his Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48)!