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Re-preparing Cage's prepared piano

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Kate Boyd
  • Kate Boyd

Kate Boyd was hoping her spring sabbatical would be contemplative, meditative. After all, she was to spend it learning works by John Cage, in particular his prepared piano pieces, which involve affixing objects to the strings of the piano to create different noises than one would usually expect to hear.

As it turns out she didn't exactly have any epiphanies; learning his Sonatas and Interludesa set of 20 short pieces by Cage for prepared piano that she'll perform Tuesday at Butler — turned out to be just like learning any other piece. But she did absorb some of his other teachings, namely his idea of embracing all sounds as music and not privileging concert music or a concert experience.

Cage has been known to have that indirect effect on people, as Boyd herself explains: Some of Cage's concerts were 30 hours long; they'd start out with a full house and end up with two people in the audience. That really didn't faze him; he thought that if somebody didn't like his music, he was doing them a favor because maybe they would hear something afterwards that they wouldn't have liked but now like because it wasn't as disagreeable to them as his music. He hoped, by contrast, to open people's ears to other new sounds and new impressions.

Boyd's concert won't quite clock in at 30 hours, and she notes that his Sonatas and Interludes — a cornerstone of 20th-century piano repertoire that's rarely performed because of the difficulties involved with preparing a piano per Cage's specifications — isn't particularly difficult listening, compared to some of Cage's later works. My best advice to anyone wanting to listen to the piece is to let the sound wash over you; let go of expectations and just enjoy the suspended time, she says of the concert, following which attendees will have an opportunity to look inside the prepared piano. Here are a few more exchanges from our talk:

The first page to the score for Sonatas and Interludes specifies how to prepare a piano using bolts and other hardware.
  • The first page to the score for Sonatas and Interludes specifies how to prepare a piano using bolts and other hardware.

NUVO: Does Cage include a schematic for how to prepare the piano?

Kate Boyd: As Cage matured as a composer, he became more interested in using chance events to dictate pitch selections and other kinds of things involved in the composition process. Now, this piece was written before he got into chance, so it's very specific about exactly what he wants the pianist to do to prepare the piano. The very first page of the score is a table listing all the notes that are to be prepared on the piano. It then has the object you're supposed to put in the piano, which strings you're supposed to put it in between, and the measurement, in inches, down to the sixteenth of an inch, of how far it has to be from the dampers. He really invented the idea of a prepared piano — the idea that if you put a threaded screw between strings, you'll actually be able to, for the duration of a performance, change the piano.

NUVO: That wasn't thought of before Cage?

Boyd: No. It had been thought of to put things on the strings or to play inside the piano, but he coined the term prepared piano, and he was the first person to put things in, quasi-permanently, that wouldn't just bounce off. [Maurice] Ravel had a piece where he put paper on the strings, and Henry Cowell, who wrote in the 1910s, was doing a lot of exploratory and experimental things inside the piano, but Cage came up with the idea in 1940, when he was working with a dancer on a different piece. She really wanted percussion for a piece, but the stage was too small for a percussion ensemble. So Cage said he'd try to make a piano more percussive. That's when he started putting things on strings — but they were just bouncing off, and that's when he realized that if he had just the right diameter of bolt, he could thread it between the strings and it would stay.

NUVO: So at this point in his work he really needed to have a predictable outcome.

Boyd: Exactly! Some of the pitches are altered by putting rubber in between the strings, which makes for a dull sound; some are altered with bolts or screws; and some are altered by putting a bolt in and then a larger nut around it, so that it vibrates like a little cymbal.

NUVO: And you've tried to follow his directions as closely as possible.

Boyd: Right. I've played with it a few times; it takes about two hours to prepare the piano for this piece because he alters 35 of the piano's 88 notes, which makes makes for a very extensive preparation process, by contrast to a lot of the prepared piano pieces he did where he changed just seven notes, for example. Every piano I play on sounds a little bit different, because every piano is a little bit different and resonates slightly differently. Cage was all about Zen practice and impermanence, so it's fitting that it's a lesson in impermanence to play this piece because from one performance to the next I can't predict exactly what the piano will sound like.

NUVO: Have you encountered any practical difficulties in preparing the piano?

Boyd: One thing that's really interesting, at least for me, is that Cage is very detailed in his chart about distance and the object he wants in there, but he doesn't say the diameter or length of the bolts he wants in there. He says long bolt, short bolt, furniture bolt, medium screw. So you go to the hardware store, and you're in the aisle at Lowes ... so at the beginning, I just got a whole bunch of options, brought them home, put them in my piano and listened to how they sounded. Through that I came up with, basically, a kit that I use to prepare. But then I have these spare parts. Because every piano is a little different, a screw that fit really well in one piano may be too loose or too tight in another. So then I'll be able to swap it out because I have extras.

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