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10 minutes reading time (2055 words)

Learning John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes

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 [on the stage] 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.  —John Cage1

John Cage invented the concept of "prepared piano" in 1940, when he composed a piece for Syvilla Fort, a dance student at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington. He initially wanted to write for a percussion ensemble; however, once he saw the stage he realized it was too small to fit a group of performers. And so, after several days of experimentation, the prepared piano was born.

After attempting to place such objects as a pie plate on the strings (which bounced off when the piano was played) and nails between the strings (which slipped down between the strings), Cage realized that if he were to insert threaded screws and bolts of the proper diameter in between the strings, he could change the sound of the piano in a specific way for the duration of the piece.

In 2012, I learned John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes, a twenty-movement work for prepared piano, consisting of sixteen sonatas (in binary form, à la Scarlatti) and four interludes. I had been interested in the piece for some time—the sounds coming out of the piano are so varied and mystical that I was fascinated with the process of exploring the sound world the piece inhabited. Working on this piece evolved into a multi-year project, with many performances throughout the United States as well as in Canada and England; and quite a number of conference presentations on the topic in the United States, Malaysia, and Germany. It led to exploration of John Cage's prepared piano music with my students as well. The project culminated last year with a CD recording of Sonatas and Interludes and In a Landscape, released on the Navona label.

In Sonatas and Interludes, the performer must "prepare" forty-five notes on the piano. Cage provides a chart on the first page of the score: the columns show the pitch to be played on the piano keyboard; the materials to be used in preparing the note; between which strings the objects should be placed; and the exact point on the string, as measured from the dampers in sixteenths of inches, the material should be inserted.

Preparing the piano for Sonatas and Interludes requires the use of the following hardware: twenty-four screws, one "small" bolt, five "medium" bolts, three "long" bolts, six "furniture" bolts, ten bolts (presumably regular), seven nuts, two pieces of plastic, fifteen pieces of rubber, and one eraser.

This chart, in the first pages of the score to Sonatas and Interludes, contains detailed instructions for how to “prepare” the piano.2

Although the distance from the bridge is precisely measured, Cage is not specific about the diameter or length of the hardware he uses. Therefore, it was up to me to establish which screws and bolts were most ideal to prepare each pitch. I discovered in my experimentation that varying the sizes of screws/metal objects leads to big changes in the sound for the note being prepared. I also noticed that the prepared notes sound quite different from one recording to another. I eventually realized that the goal is less about achieving a particular pitch (otherwise Cage would have told us what note should be sounded by the preparation) than about eliciting a percussive, non-piano-like sound from each note on the piano.

Once I started this project, I had all sorts of questions. We have been taught that when we learn a new piece of music, all the information we need is contained in the score. But before I could play a note, I needed to figure out several things: How do I create the "instrument" John Cage specified in his score? What is the difference between a furniture bolt and a regular bolt? What if the strings of the piano are crossed over each other in such a way that I can't access the strings indicated by his chart at the beginning of the score? How might I adjust Cage's precisely notated measurements if the piano I'm using is a different size from the one he used? Is it normal for metal objects to buzz when inserted between the strings? How much "buzz" is too much? What kind of sounds am I actually striving for, anyway? Do I want a ringing sound, or a percussive sound? (And am I really sure about this prepared piano stuff? Wouldn't it be simpler to forget about this and play some Chopin instead?)

After several trips to the hardware store to amass an arsenal of fittings, I began experimenting. I became familiar with the types of unusual percussive sounds that inserting screws and bolts between the strings creates. Depending on diameter, length, and placement, the metal can activate overtones or slightly displace the pitch, yielding a jangling, out-of-tune sound. I learned that if the diameter is not big enough, the screw will buzz annoyingly even when other pitches are played, a sound that is best avoided. Rubber creates a knocking, thudding effect, similar to a bongo drum. Combining rubber and a screw sounds like a snare drum. Plastic woven between the strings adds a click to the pitch as it's struck. Putting materials between strings two and three and then using the soft pedal will eliminate most sense of pitch for the prepared notes, which is partly what leads to a gamelan effect in certain sections of the piece.

Several sources proved to be invaluable. I read and re-read Richard Bungar Evans' book The Well-Prepared Piano, which details the precise manner in which to prepare a piano using Cage's specifications. This slim volume is an essential resource for any pianist wishing to play this piece, or indeed, any prepared-piano work by John Cage. I also listened to a number of recordings, including the original LP of the piece by Maro Ajemian, in which Cage was said to have prepared the piano himself. Since some of the movements evoke the sound of a gamelan orchestra, I spent some time watching and listening to gamelan playing. When I went to Malaysia to present at a John Cage conference, I was amazed to witness gamelan playing in the hallways of the university hosting the conference.

After having played the piece for some months, I noticed that my ear was starting to encompass a range of possible sounds for each note and movement in the piece. I slowly learned to relinquish control over the way each note would sound, since it is impossible to precisely replicate the sound of a prepared note from one piano to another. I developed a system for preparation, whereby I used envelopes labeled with each prepared note, containing the materials to use. Each time I came to a new venue to perform this work, I put the items in the piano in an initial pass (this took about forty-five minutes to an hour), and then went back through the piano to carefully adjust the placement of each screw (this took an additional hour). If there was unpleasant jangling or if a screw didn't fit between the strings of that particular instrument, I swapped it out with a piece of hardware from my reserves.

I would like to take a moment to discuss the question of whether preparing an instrument causes damage. At first I was quite concerned I was going to damage my home instrument, a concert instrument, or an instrument in my teaching studio at Butler University. (I was not alone in my concerns; one of my performances was canceled on short notice when the hosting institution realized that in order to perform this piece I would need to spend two hours preparing their concert instrument.) 

I learned that by following three principles, I was able to prevent damage to the instrument:

1) Never force the strings apart. A screw/bolt should be wide enough to change the sound, but not so wide that it makes the strings bulge apart. The primary concern here is not to change the alignment of the damper on the string.

2) Never touch the dampers. The damper is the most sensitive part of the mechanism and even accidental grazing with one's hand can throw it out of alignment and create a lot of work for a piano technician.

3) Avoid touching the strings with your fingers. According to the piano technicians I spoke to, there is actually more potential to cause damage to strings from the oils on your skin than by touching the strings with metal.

Even after all I learned about the correct way to prepare a piano, I was still concerned that I might damage an instrument. What finally put my fears to rest was having the experience at a number of the venues where I performed this work, where the piano technician responsible for the concert instrument asked to watch while I prepared the piano. Invariably he or she was fascinated, and not at all alarmed by what I was putting inside the piano or how I was doing it. 

After I had performed Sonatas and Interludes a number of times, I realized I had learned so much in the process that my students should also have the opportunity to experience some of the prepared piano works of John Cage. Between 1940 and 1950, Cage composed about twenty short works for prepared piano, most of which were conceived of as dance pieces. Most of these can be purchased in Prepared Piano Music Volumes I and II (1940-1947), published by Peters. Whereas Sonatas and Interludes required a two-hour preparation process, these shorter pieces can be prepared in one to ten minutes, depending on the type of materials required and the number of notes to be altered.

Therefore, I divvied up the shorter pieces among my students at the beginning of the semester. We devoted several studio classes to the learning of proper piano preparation technique. The students made trips to the hardware store and scoured workshops in search of materials to insert between the strings of the pianos. They came back after Thanksgiving recounting incredulous conversations with their relatives about what they were doing in piano lessons at college. In December of Cage's centenary, we performed a recital of his prepared piano music, juxtaposed with standard repertoire.

I encourage teachers to work on pieces for prepared piano or works that use extended techniques with their students. Doing so provides a good opportunity for discussions about the piano's mechanism, character through sound, the piano in its role as a percussion instrument, among other things. John Cage is a good place to start, because a lot of these short pieces require minimal preparation of the piano. It doesn't seem to be possible to prepare an upright piano, which can be an issue for the student's home practice. But most prepared piano pieces can be learned on the keys without preparation, and a student could prepare the piano just for lessons, which should be sufficient practice for a performance.

What began as a desire to learn one specific John Cage piece grew into a fascinating adventure in sound over the course of a multi-year project. Through my experience with Sonatas and Interludes, I grew much more intimate with the inner workings of the piano and gained access to an entirely new vocabulary of sounds. My students, while working on Cage's shorter prepared piano pieces, had a great deal of fun tinkering with the inside of the piano, and enjoyed exploring the piano's identity as a percussion instrument. I invite you to discover the wide-ranging world of prepared piano music, too.

1 Evans, Richard Bungar. (1981). The Well-Prepared Piano. (San Pedro, CA: Litoral Arts Press.

2 First page of Sonatas and Interludes: Copyright © 1960 by Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by kind permission. For sale from C.F. Peters Corporation, Edition Number 6755.

Photo of John Cage by Bogaerts, Rob/Anefo via Wikimedia Commons.

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