Richard Aphex, John Cage and the Prepared Piano
There’s a lot of piano on the Aphex Twin’s album ‘Drukqs’. Often referred to as the Ambient tracks or even the Classical tracks. Extremely pleasant, often slow, with lots of harmonies. Some of the tracks are straight piano – strotha tynhe, avril 14th, father – 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. When Cage first did this the objects were screws, bolts and pieces of ‘weather stripping’ (short strips of felt covered plastic used for draught-proofing windows).
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 the late 1930s, the young John Cage often worked with dancers and choreographers and the music he composed was usually written for his percussion ensemble. Rhythm had become important in Cage’s music because he had decided that the duration of sounds should be the main structural element in music making. Prior to this melody and harmony had been the guiding principles of composition. Cage believed that music should be made of sound and silence – any sounds, not just notes – and the only characteristic common to both sound and silence is duration – length of time. Silence cannot be high or low, loud or quiet, harsh or smooth. Silence is silence – absence of sound – it can last for a short time or a long time and that’s it. Sounds also have duration. All sounds stop (actually Cage discovered two sounds that don’t) and the fact that they stop enables the phenomenon of rhythm. If sounds didn’t stop, it would be extremely difficult to make rhythms. Having decided that rhythm was more important than melody and harmony and that all sounds, not just notes, could be used to make music, Cage began to work with percussion. His group played conventional orchestral instruments – drums, rattles, cymbals etc – and invented a few of their own – automobile brake drums, kitchen utensils, household objects etc.
In 1940 the dancer Syvilla Fort asked John Cage to compose the music for an energetic, lively 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. It was notes themselves that were problematic; the piece didn’t need conventional notes, but notes were what a piano produced. “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 and seen and heard the results of extended piano techniques devised by his teacher Henry Cowell. These involved plucking strings inside the piano, strumming across the strings and rubbing a darning needle along a string. The effect of these techniques changed the sound of the piano creating interesting harmonics and, what were then, new sounds. Cage tried some of these ideas and then experimented with household objects placed inside the piano. He tried resting a metal pie plate on the strings. It gave an interesting sound but it bounced about. He tried an iron nail inserted into a group of strings but it fell out. He knew he was moving in the right direction. The thread of a woodscrew would hold it in place if it was twisted into the space in a group of strings. Similarly with a bolt. Cage 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. It starts at a furious pace, buzzing and rattling and pinging like a collection of thick tin cans. The rhythm is strident and very clear with a strong pulse. It’s like clockwork, acoustic techo. Music for windup toys. As the pace slows, weird bell-like tones shimmer and resonate like some early 80s digital synthesizer in its gurgling death throes. 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 (phrase lengths, numbers of bars, repeated sections) as the main structural element. 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. They were trying to reinvent what it was to be human. 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 Radio 3 programme called ‘Mixing It’ which no longer exists. His music was being played along with the usual fabulous eclectic mix that this programme offered. 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. Many other techno artists would have probably prepared a piano and sampled some of the sounds, but not Richard James, he knew this simply wouldn’t work and that any results of this process would be crass. He bought a grand piano that can be played by computer. It’s called a ‘Diskclavier’ and it’s made by Yamaha. It’s exactly like a straightforward grand piano but the keys can be controlled by a computer via MIDI – the musical instrument digital interface. Richard James cannot read conventional musical notation and he cannot play a keyboard so, in order to make the piano and prepared piano pieces that appear on ‘Drukqs’ he prepared his Diskclavier according to the principles established by John Cage and programmed the playing using 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
This article was originally published on the Warp Records website