John Cage: In a Landscape

The prepared piano was born out of a difficult aesthetic problem solved by a burst of common sense typical in John Cage's career. As the resident musician and composer at Seattle's Cornish School, Cage was invited by the dancer Syvilla Fort some time around 1940 to compose music for her new dance Bacchanale. (James Pritchett, in "The Music of John Cage," discusses the problems with fixing this chronology exactly.) At that time, Cage had been writing two distinctly different kinds of music: twelve-tone instrumental music concerned with questions of pitch organization, and percussion music focusing on rhythm and the exotic sound qualities of the instruments (which included found objects such as automobile brake drums, tin cans, and buzzers as well as various non-Western drums, gongs, and rattles). Cage describes the character of the dance as "African," which would have made his percussion music entirely appropriate -- but there was no room for the instruments in the theater where the dance was to be presented. The music would have to be performed on a small grand piano sitting at the side of the stage, which pointed the composer in the direction of his twelve-tone music. Cage spent some time unsuccessfully trying to find a twelve-tone row with an "African" character before deciding, in typically Cagean fashion, that the problem was not with the composer, but with the piano itself. "I decided that what was wrong was not me but the piano. I decided to change it."

Henry Cowell, with whom Cage had studied, had created any number of interesting sounds by manipulating the insides of the piano rather than the keyboard: plucking, strumming, scraping and sliding objects along the strings. Remembering this, Cage first tried placing a pie plate on top of the strings (it created the right kind of sound, but bounced around unpredictably) then inserting nails between the strings (even better, but they tended to slip through), before settling on the combination of screws, bolts, and weather stripping wedged between various strings for Bacchanale. These objects, called "mutes" by Cage, change the sound in remarkable ways, altering or obliterating the original pitch and introducing new microtonal pitches and non-pitched noises reminiscent of gongs and log drums when the corresponding note on the keyboard is struck. The prepared piano resembles the original unprepared grand piano only in appearance (and only from the outside, as the inside becomes a miniature jungle, with screws, bolts, bits of plastic, wood, rubber and felt, and other objects sprouting like mushrooms from between the strings). Cage has described the new instrument as a percussion orchestra under the control of a single player. Much of Cage's music for prepared piano was written specifically for dance, and many of those pieces share both imagery and structure with the dances for which they were composed. Cage described Bacchanale as "rather primitive, almost barbaric."

Use of the prepared piano led the composer down a very distinct musical path. The first task in writing for the prepared piano is the selection and placement of the preparations, building a palette of pings, thumps, and drum-and gong-like noises, with hints of microtones lying between the cracks of the keyboard, often a single sustained pitch ringing on after an initial burst of noise. The creation of a piece thus begins with a choice of materials rather than a theme or motif (or even a twelve-tone row). Each prepared note takes on an autonomous character, like a chord or harmony complete in itself. Composition then becomes the act of ordering and combining these previously chosen sound-objects, rather than creating melodies and harmonies out of the available pitches. A particularly striking example of this approach is apparent in A Valentine Out of Season, written "for Xenia [then Cage’s wife] to play on a prepared grand piano." Each of the individual sounds recurs intact, without reference to counterpoint or conventional harmony. Much of the music becomes, in effect, one long, unaccompanied melody -- but a melody made up of pings, thuds, and shakes rather than pitches.

In Dream, In a Landscape, Souvenir and Suite for Toy Piano, Cage rings a variation on this technique. The chords, rattles, and gongs are reduced to single tones, all falling within a mere or less conventional scale or mode. The pedal sustains the tones and adds resonance in the two compositions for piano (ad libitum in Dream, throughout the length of In a Landscape). In Souvenir for organ (written roughly thirty-five years after Dream!) the tones may be freely sustained either manually or with the pedals. A toy piano, of course, has its own natural resonance and sustain. At the time Cage wrote Suite for Toy Piano, most toy pianos had only white keys which worked (the black keys were merely painted on). Cage's music uses only the nine white keys from E natural up to F natural lying in the center of the keyboard.

Lying somewhere between the prepared piano music and the modal, quasi-tonal writing of Dream, or, rather, overlapping both, Music for Marcel Duchamp, written for an animated film sequence, evokes (without quoting) both the timbre and the harmony of certain Asian musical traditions – static, meditative, and timeless. This quality can also be felt in Prelude for Meditation, which uses only four different tones. Cage's music of this period increasingly invites the listener toward a state of tranquillity, the "colorless" emotion which lies at the center of the nine permanent emotions of Indian aesthetics. For Cage, from this point on, the purpose of all artistic endeavor would be "to sober and quiet the mind thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences."

-- Stephen Drury

[ JOHN CAGE, Empty Words ]