John Cage and the prepared piano

John Cage and the prepared piano:
a twelve-year history in six parts

by James Pritchett

Copyright 2007 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

Prologue (5 April 1944)

“Dances by Merce Cunningham; Music by John Cage”, the concert program read. “April fifth, Nineteen forty-four, at nine o’clock.” The program, divided into three parts, consisted of:



Root of an unfocus

Tossed as it is untroubled


The perilous night: six solos

Songs: She is asleep/The wonderful widow of 18 springs

Amores: prelude; trio; waltz; solo


The unavailable memory of

Totem ancestor

Spontaneous earth

The importance of this concert in dance history is well-known: Merce Cunningham has stated “I date my beginning from this concert.” Cunningham, still dancing with the Martha Graham company, had performed solos on various group concerts in New York; this April 1944 concert was the first to feature his dances alone.

But this was an important point in John Cage’s work with the prepared piano as well. Just as with Cunningham, prior to 1944 the prepared piano had appeared here and there on dance programs. But this concert featured Cage’s music for the prepared piano almost exclusively. The April 1944 Cunningham-Cage concert was thus a showcase for both Cunningham’s talent as a choreographer and the prepared piano’s possibilities as a musical medium. And as we will see, it was the debut of the collaborative venture of Cunningham-Cage.

This two-CD set presents all of Cage’s surviving works for prepared piano that were used as dance accompaniments (plus The perilous night and A room, two purely concert works). The April 1944 concert program represents the core of that work: six of the eighteen pieces heard here were played on that one concert. It was the concert that established the instrument as a musical medium and which established Cage as its master. In retrospect, it appears as the pivotal point in the twelve-year history of Cage’s work with the prepared piano.

1940: Necessity and invention

The story of Cage’s invention of the prepared piano is fairly well-known. In 1940, while a dance accompanist at The Cornish School in Seattle, Cage was working mostly with percussion music. When one of the dancers, Syvilla Fort, asked Cage to write the score for her dance Bacchanale, she surely expected a percussion work. However, the concert was to be held in a space too limited for the battery of instruments that Cage typically used. All he would have at his disposal was a piano. The music he had in mind did not lend itself to the clear pitches of the piano, so Cage found a way to alter the piano to make it sound more like the percussion instruments he favored. He wedged bolts and pieces of weather stripping between the strings of the piano, muting the tone and creating more complex, inharmonic timbres. After this discovery, “I wrote theBacchanale quickly,” Cage recalled, “and with the excitement continual discovery provided.”

Quickly, indeed: according to Cage’s account he only had three or four days notice to write the piece. Three or four days to invent a new instrument and then write a ten-minute work for it. It is not surprising, then, that this is hardly top-drawer Cage, that there is so much repetition, that much of the piece sounds like “filler”. But even in this work he had already found many of the sounds and techniques of the prepared piano: how to use loose nuts threaded onto a bolt to create a metallic “ching” when played, or the timbral shift that takes place when the una corda pedal is depressed.

1941-1942: Forgotten

Bacchanale was premiered on 28 April 1940. After that performance, the prepared piano was essentially forgotten for two years. During this time Cage was busy promoting his music for percussion: first in San Francisco, then Chicago, then New York City. There is no indication that he thought about his invention at all during this time.

1942-1943: Necessity and rediscovery

In 1942, Cage found himself in New York City, but, due to various circumstances, without his percussion instruments. He also lacked an institutional affiliation that would get him access to the instruments and performers needed for the kinds of works he had put on in San Francisco. Under those conditions, the prepared piano once again looked like an attractive medium in which to work. Indeed, 1942 was the beginning of a period of several years when Cage wrote almost exclusively for the instrument.

The prepared piano continued to be primarily a medium for dance compositions, and Cage worked with various dancers in the city. His first efforts – Totem ancestor, written for Merce Cunningham, and And the earth shall bear again, written for dancer Valerie Bettis – served to reacquaint him with the instrument and did not really break any new ground.

It is with Primitive, composed in December 1942 for Wilson Williams, that we get our first glimpse of what the prepared piano could and did become. The opening minute or so of this piece features a quiet, meandering solo line, interrupted at times by rhythmic chords. Listening carefully to that solo line, however, we find that it is actually a counterpoint: the preparations cause each key to produce two prominent tones, one high and one low. While the original impetus for the preparations had been to remove the pitches from the piano, what Cage found was that it could also be used to multiply them, to produce thick, complex sonorities with a single finger. This was the discovery that changed everything for Cage, that opened the rich world of the prepared piano.

And so when, only two days later, Cage composed In the name of the holocaust for another Cunningham dance, he approached it differently. The meandering multicolored line of Primitive now takes center stage in the first part of the two-part work. The feeling of discovery, of sonic exploration is palpable in the magical watery blur of the opening. Other explorations soon followed. A room (part of a larger cycle of concert works that were never finished) has a similar feel, tending more to the gong-like sounds that prompt the common comparison of the prepared piano to the gamelan. Even when Cage returns to the propulsive, rhythmic, “primitive” style of writing in Our spring will come (for a dance by Pearl Primus), the sound has changed. No longer relying on trills and static chords, the rhythms are articulated by a hyperactive line, playing off not only the rhythms of the attacks, but off the interplay of the various timbres: knocks, buzzes, thuds, gongs, and piano tones (including the startling appearance of unprepared octaves near the end). The prepared piano had become lighter, fleet of foot – it now danced.

1944: The debut of Cunningham-Cage

Which brings us back to the Cunningham-Cage concert of April 1944. From all accounts, it was Cage who was pushing Cunningham to make his own name as a soloist and choreographer. They worked together to make the concert happen, even down to designing the costumes (Cunningham) and the layout of the program (Cage). One of the dances – Totem ancestor – was an earlier work, as were the songs and Amores. The rest of the program was brand new, all for prepared piano solo, created in a flurry of activity in 1943 and early 1944. Musically, the concert represents an outpouring of creativity and discovery as Cage finds a creative groove working with the prepared piano. It is as if the prepared piano opened itself up to him fully in this short period of time, much as indeterminacy and new notation would do in 1957 and 1958 with the Solo for piano.

The concert program takes us into this new world immediately with Root of an unfocus.Sonically, the piece is daring and gripping. Right from the opening, Cage establishes the kind of taut, minimal style that would characterize so many of the prepared piano works to come. The contrast of the quiet, irregular low thunks with the jarring high metallic tones keeps us on edge, and the work continues in this unsettling vein throughout.

The piece was a breakthrough for Cage, Cunningham, and their collaboration itself. It was possibly the first time that both Cage and Cunningham began by agreeing on a common, arbitrary time structure, and then going off individually to fill that structure with sound and movement. In his concert works, Cage had been using time structures based on various proportional schemes since 1939, but when working with dancers, he followed the phrases laid out in their choreography. For Root of an unfocus, Cunningham adopted Cage’s approach and the two of them agreed upon a structure with proportions 4:5:3. It is easy to hear this structure in the music, since each section is filled with a different kind of sound and continuity. Regarding this work, Cage said “I had long had the idea of letting the arts collaborate without following one another, but it was with Root of an unfocus that we really made some kind of progress.”

The remainder of the new dance works are strong, if less astonishing. Spontaneous earth shows just how far Cage had come with the prepared piano, taking what is essentially the same materials as Bacchanale and using them with vastly greater control and focus. Tossed as it is untroubled and The unavailable memory of continue the pared-down approach of Root of an unfocus, but with a lower-key, less dramatic touch. They share a sonic world of muted tones: in Tossed this is dry and restless, while in The unavailable memory of it is more relaxed and languid, with the tones extended through the use of the sustaining pedal. Both works are essentially monochromatic, althoughTossed throws in a metallic halo at the very end.

The center of the concert was dominated by the solo suite The perilous night. Here, Cage brings together everything he knows about the prepared piano and shows it off in six brief movements. It’s all here: the minimal monochromes, the delicately shifting lines of color, the moto perpetuo with complex rhythms created by the interplay of timbres, and it ends with an obsessive and propulsive finale. The whole work has a darkness about it, an underlying sense of unease and violence. Cage himself described the piece as being about “the loneliness and terror that comes to one when love becomes unhappy.”

It may have been Cage who pushed Cunningham to stage his first solo concert, but it is clear that Cunningham was bringing out the best in Cage as well. The shared structural approach shows that the Cunningham-Cage collaboration was something altogether different from what Cage had been doing with other choreographers. Root of an unfocusand the other dance works on the 1944 program were not works for hire; the entire concert was a labor of love. In April 1944, Cunningham-Cage was launched as a phenomenon unto itself. You can hear the excitement of the two men in the music that Cage created.

A valentine out of season was a postscript to the Cunningham-Cage debut. This suite of three short movements was neither a concert work nor a dance accompaniment: it was a private gift from Cage to his wife Xenia. Composed after the concert 1944, the piece was not performed publicly at that time. The music was deliberately made simple so that Xenia, not an accomplished pianist, would be able to play it. Presumably, if anyone performed it in 1944, it would have been her alone. The overall tone of the work is sad, wistful, intimate, empty. Shortly after this, the Cages separated and were divorced.

1945-1948: From dance to concert hall

After the 1944 concert with Cunningham, Cage’s work with the prepared piano became more ambitious, and he turned to larger forms. He wrote two half-hour pieces for prepared piano duo, for the virtuoso team of Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. Even the pair of dance works from this period are larger. Cunningham’s Mysterious adventureclocks in at almost twice the length of Root of an unfocus, and Daughters of the lonesome isle, for a dance by Jean Erdman, is just as long. But after these two works, Cage composed no dance works for prepared piano for years. Instead, he spent his time on Sonatas and interludes, the summation of everything he knew about the prepared piano. That, and his work on the orchestral score for Cunningham’s ballet The seasons, occupied almost all of his attention from 1946 through 1948.

There was one work in which the prepared piano played a different kind of accompanying role: Music for Marcel Duchamp of 1947, written for Hans Richter’s filmDreams money can buy. An anthology film, it had sequences by a number of surrealist and Dada artists: Richter, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Man Ray. Cage’s music, obviously, is for the Duchamp sequence, which consisted of his twirling optical “rotoreliefs.” The simple sound of the piece – muted tones with a single metallic accent – returns to the style of Tossed as it is untroubled or The unavailable memory of, but in Marcel Duchamp this style seems more perfectly put together, with impeccable timing and a dramatic use of repetition and silence. Cage’s flat expanses of music are a perfect match for Duchamp’s plot-less and action-less cinema.

1949-1952: From the prepared piano to chance

In his 1948 lecture “A composer’s confessions,” Cage describes the characteristic sound of the prepared piano as “a melody which employs sounds having widely different timbres.” This is the multicolored line first heard in Primitive and In the name of the holocaust, and then explored so fully in The perilous night and Sonatas and interludes. After 1948, however, Cage moved on, and the prepared piano appeared to take a less prominent role in his work.

I say “appeared” because this is in fact an illusion. That “melody which employs sounds having widely different timbres” was the foundation for Cage’s breakthrough work of 1949, the String quartet in four parts. The prepared piano pieces consisted of melodies, each tone of which had a unique, complex sonority. He then turned around and wrote the string quartet in exactly the same manner. As the material for simple melodies, he took a scale of tones, each of which had its own very specific, fixed harmonic color, scored a particular way for the four strings. Just as with the prepared piano, when you play the melody, you get the different colors shifting prismatically. Listen to the opening of In the name of the holocaust and then listen to the opening of the second movement of the string quartet and you’ll hear the connection. The String quartet in four parts is really a transcription of a work for prepared piano.

From the prepared piano came the string quartet, and from the string quartet came chance composition. It was a short step for Cage to take to go from a linear scale of sonorities to a two-dimensional chart, which he used in the Concerto for prepared piano and chamber orchestra of 1950-1951. And then it was another short step to go from making melodies to making geometrical moves on the charts. At that point, the next step – tossing coins to choose which sound appears next – doesn’t seem that monumental at all. And so in 1951, by the end of the prepared piano concerto, chance had arrived.

On New Year’s Day of 1952, David Tudor premiered Cage’s Music of changes, his first large chance composition. Significantly, it was a piano piece, not a prepared piano piece. The new world of chance music was to be one in which the prepared piano did not play a significant role. The only exceptions were the Two pastorales, both composed in that winter of 1951-1952. Both pieces were composed using the same chart-and-I-chingmethod of Music of changes, but with different structural dimensions and sound materials. The first Pastorale was written for a dance by Merle Marsicano; the second came later as an afterthought, using exactly the same method, structure, and materials. In effect the two pieces show what happens when you execute the same random process. Listen for the similar sounds that appear in both, but in different rhythmic and contrapuntal contexts, and you’ll have a glimpse of how the chance operations worked.

Cage described this new method of composition as “throwing sound into silence.” With the Two pastorales, Cage throws his last prepared piano sounds into that silence. He would not write for the instrument again.