Richard Aphex, John Cage and the Prepared Piano (excerpt)

There’s a lot of piano on the Aphex Twin’s album ‘Drukqs’. Some of the tracks are straight piano and some have the piano sound altered, offering metallic rattles, woody clunks and textured thwacks. These are the classic sounds of the ‘Prepared Piano’, an instrument invented, in 1940, by the American Experimental composer John Cage. A piano is ‘prepared’ by placing small, everyday objects in the strings. 

Most of the strings of a grand piano are usually grouped in threes, the exception to this are the bass notes, where the strings get longer and thicker, which are grouped in twos and, the very low notes, which are single strings. The fact that each note is a tight group of three strings enables small objects placed between the strings to be held in place by the tension in the strings. A screw or a bolt or a pencil rubber will simply stay put when it is inserted into the piano strings. And when such an object is gripped by the strings it changes the sound that is produced when the piano hammer strikes. No longer is there a clear note, with identifiable pitch, there is instead an exotic rattle, ping or thud like an instrument from Africa or the Far East.

In 1940 the dancer Syvilla Fort asked John Cage to compose the music for a solo dance she called Bacchanle. The theatre where the performance was to take place had no room for the percussion group, there was only enough space for a grand piano. The dance had an African theme and Cage was asked to write music that had a flavour of Africa. So, using only his piano he tried to find scales and groupings of notes that had this kind of sound. He couldn’t do it. The notes were not working. “I decided that what was wrong was the piano, not my efforts, because I was conscientious” Cage wrote later. He needed some way of changing the sound of the piano. Cage had seen and heard the results of extended piano techniques devised by his teacher Henry Cowell. The effect of these techniques changed the sound of the piano creating interesting harmonics and new sounds. Cage experimented with household objects placed inside the piano and had hit on the right objects. Later he recalled, “I was delighted to notice that by means of a single preparation two different sounds could be produced. One was resonant and open, the other was quiet and muted. The quiet one was heard whenever the soft pedal was used.”
Having prepared his piano he set about composing the piece. This was done relatively quickly. Cage had hit upon a fabulous new soundworld.

There are many pieces, written by Cage (and others), for prepared piano. The Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48) are a collection of short pieces written with rhythm and durational proportions. Music for Marcel Duchamp was composed in 1947 and was used to accompany part of the experimental film ‘Dreams That Money Can Buy’ by the Dadaist Hans Richter. Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1951) completely extends the classical idea of a concerto and the role of the solo instrument against the orchestra.
These were heady days and it’s extremely difficult for us now to imagine how weird this music must have sounded. War was raging in Europe and the Far East and the whole world order was changing in ways we cannot comprehend today. Composers, artists and writers were trying to sweep away everything that had gone before, they were trying to make new sounds, new images and new meanings. The modernist world presented a new reality routed in abstraction, dislocation and the unconscious. What music meant was no longer clear. Melody, harmony and the idea of memorable tunes disappeared. New sounds, dislocated rhythms and dissonance were the ingredients of the new music.

Nearly sixty years later Richard James was in a BBC studio taking part in a programme called ‘Mixing It’. One of Cage’s prepared piano pieces was played and Mr Aphex’s ears were drawn to the extraordinary sounds. He enquired about the prepared piano and how it was all done. He bought a grand piano that can be played by computer. It’s called a ‘Diskclavier’ . It’s exactly like a straightforward grand piano but the keys can be controlled by a computer. The results are there for all to hear. It’s a real piano on Drukqs, not a sampler or a synthesizer. Richard James has brought the sound of the forties into the 21st century.

© 2002 Robert Worby- read whole text