The avant-garde and always-iconoclastic composer John Cage threw a wrench in the Western music tradition when he invented the prepared piano in 1940. Well, maybe not a wrench per se—but an eclectic assortment of hardware supplies, nonetheless.
All Photos and Video by Maggie Molloy.
Presented with the challenge of writing dance music for a small stage with no room for a percussion group, Cage discovered it was possible to create an entire percussion orchestra with just a single instrument—a grand piano. His creation was the prepared piano: a grand piano that has had its sound altered by placing everyday objects such as screws, bolts, and pieces of rubber on or between the strings.
And that small, humble stage on which he first invented it? That was actually right here in Seattle, at Cornish College of the Arts. At the time, Cage was working there as composer and accompanist for the dance department.
Cage’s prepared piano works have since been studied and performed all over the world—and now, Seattle-based pianist Jesse Myers is bringing them back to the Northwest for two very special lecture-recitals on Cage’s famous Sonatas and Interludes. Performances are Saturday, May 14 at Stage 7 Pianos and Friday, May 20 at the Good Shepherd Chapel Performance Space.
Though the Sonatas and Interludes are among Cage’s most famous recordings, live performances of the work are relatively few and far between. That’s because most artists and venues shudder at the thought of placing sharp metal objects inside something as sacred and pure as a piano—plus set-up, take-down, and tuning a prepared piano takes hours.
Suffice it to say, it’s not so easy to get your hands on a prepared piano. And so, me being the unabashedly nerdy Cage fan that I am, I jumped at the opportunity to drop by to Myer’s piano studio and experience Cage’s prepared piano live, in-person. Myers was kind enough to let me try my hand at the prepared piano, and to answer some of my burning questions about his upcoming performances.
Second Inversion: What do you personally find most unique or inspiring about Cage’s music and artistic philosophy? What drew you to his prepared piano works specifically?
Jesse Myers: As a teacher, I tend to be a pretty analytical musician. Form, structure, and harmonic analysis of the great masterpieces of classical literature are some of the most exciting things for me to explore. It is perhaps the biggest motivation for me to continue to explore new and challenging music. But this has been quite different compared to, say, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven.
On the surface, the most unique aspect of this music is obviously the preparations to the piano, something that John Cage invented. Beyond the preparations and from a compositional perspective, the pieces are exceptional in regard to their lack of harmonic structure and their reliance on a rhythmic form.
The vast majority of music that exists, across all styles from rock and roll to classical, is built on a design of tension and release (dissonance to consonance)—and this is done so by harmony. Once Cage prepared the piano, it destroyed the possibility of harmony functioning as the glue that holds the music together. Instead, Cage developed a form solely on rhythm.
Remarkably, he did so in a way that short phrases relate to that of the whole of the piece, a form he called “micro-macrocosmic structure.” Like a fractal, its structure, one could say, is more natural (as in life and nature) than harmony. Harmonic rules are man-made and academic. Fractals are found everywhere in nature. Nature in art is an important aesthetic perspective when playing and listening to his music.
I’ve always been intrigued by this music but received some squeamishness from people in charge of performance spaces. That’s unfortunate and discouraging. If you don’t know any better, it sounds like it could be damaging to the piano, but a properly prepared piano is totally benign. My technician, Kenn Wildes, is the owner of Stage 7 Pianos, one of the venues for these recitals, and he was really open-minded to the idea. His initial agreement to have me perform these was basically the start of this project. Kenn is such a strong advocate for classical piano in our community and an invaluable resource for me as a pianist.
SI: How do you go about practicing Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes? Do you practice with or without preparations, or some combination thereof?
JM: I practice the music both prepared and unprepared. It’s like knowing two different pieces of music. The unprepared version actually works musically which I find fascinating—they are modal or diatonic at times. When I prepare the piano for these pieces it is as if I am witnessing a cast of performers getting ready for an elaborate theatrical production where all the characters put on their makeup and costumes to become completely different and unrecognizable. Playing it unprepared, though musically still rewarding, feels a bit like the actors are just practicing their lines in their jeans and t-shirts without any staging. I never expected that sensation to occur when I started this project.
I teach at home Monday through Friday. On the weekends I prepare the piano for the Cage and unprepare it for Monday’s lessons—my students probably wouldn’t want to hear bongos and rattles instead of their Chopin. The first time I did it, it took four hours. Now it takes about an hour just to get the material in the piano and maybe another 30 minutes of tuning.
SI: As a classically trained pianist, can you tell me a bit about what it was like for you to sit down and play a prepared piano for the first time? What are some of the major unexpected differences or similarities between playing a standard grand piano and a prepared one?
JM: At first it was very disorienting. Playing something like a simple ascending scale causes the pitches to zigzag up and down. When you expect the sequence of pitches to get higher, they may sound lower or sound like a bongo or a rattle. I have to say though, it didn’t take long to acclimate to Cage’s prepared piano.
The biggest difficulty after learning the notes has been dynamic relationships (volume) among the changing timbres of the different notes. For instance, if Cage asks for the notes to steadily get softer, I have to be mindful of the preparations within that phrase because some notes may be muted with rubber, or have a bolt with a nut that rattles on it. So the same pressure applied to each key results in a varying array of volumes.
One of the questions I get a lot is whether or not the notes feel different when you strike the key. Basically, can I feel a note rattle or clang? There is no tactile difference among the notes of a prepared piano and a regular one. So I have to know what sound the note will make before I strike it. So if I practice the piece without the preparations, I’m actively “translating” the sounds in my head. Not so easy, but I’m getting better at it.
SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing this music?
JM: I think every serious pianist should try this music at some point in their career. I’ve become a better musician and that’s the biggest reward. Though I don’t think I’ve necessarily become a better pianist from it, as the pianistic skills developed are probably isolated and catered to these pieces alone.
Musically, however, it has matured me in that I have found a brand new way of emoting. I cannot rely on melodic and harmonic expression or pianistic tone. Since working on this music, my job has been to create an emotionally captivating performance in the absence of the only tool I’ve ever performed with—the unprepared piano. Try asking a chef to make world-class dish but take away her knives and whisks, but instead give her a rubber mallet, a garden spade, and a wheel—now there’s a cooking show.
SI: Have you tried playing other music or writing your own music on Cage’s prepared piano?
JM: I have a lot of fun improvising music on his prepared piano. Most of my improvisations end up sounding like Mickey Hart in a tripped-out part of a Grateful Dead show. I’ve never tried to structure a piece though. Some of the sounds are so unique that I can’t help but hear the Sonatas and Interludes when I play them. I think if I were to compose something for the prepared piano I would have to change up the preparations and start fresh. Cage’s presence is inescapable in these preparations.
SI: What are you most looking forward to with these two upcoming performances, and what do you hope audience members will gain from them?
JM: I think this is some of Cage’s most accessible music. In the very least, I would like to open the audience’s mind to exploring more of his music and more of his ideas in general. Even outside of his compositions he is an incredibly interesting figure who seems to be incapable of uttering anything except the profound.
For the more-seasoned Cage listeners, should they come, would be to show a fresh take on these pieces. This music is electric with rhythm and I want these pieces to get into your bones, not just your mind. Beyond that, these performances will sound remarkably different than anything you’ve ever heard before, even if you are familiar with the music. No two pianos will ever really sound the same once they are prepared. This is ever-changing, living music.
Jesse Myers will present two prepared piano lecture-recitals on Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The first is this Saturday, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Stage 7 Pianos in Kirkland. The second is next Friday, May 20 at 8 p.m. at the Good Shepherd Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford.