What is a prepared piano?
Cutlery, metal screws, bits of plastic and rubber. Not your usual accessories for a concert pianist. Unless, that is, you’re an artist exploring the inventive world of the prepared piano. Then, these everyday items take on new meaning. A prepared piano is one that has been temporarily altered by placing objects inside the instrument, between or on its strings. The sound, character, timbre and tuning of the piano can all be altered in this way, and an array of percussive and unexpected effects created. John Cage wasn’t the very first composer to come up with the idea of preparing a piano, but his work cemented the concept’s place in music history – and it’s a technique still used by artists today, including Hauschka in his 2005 album The Prepared Piano.
Here are Hauschka’s six favourite pieces for prepared piano:
John Cage Sonata X for prepared piano (1948)
Cage‘s Tenth Sonata has so much energy. It takes an incredibly long time to prepare a piano for a John Cage piece, but it is worth every second because when it’s done properly, the sound is so clear and powerful. Tim Ovens’s performance of this Sonata is particularly strong.
Henry Cowell Aeolian Harp (1923)
A pupil of John Cage, Henry Cowell was one of the first composers for prepared piano. He plays the piano like a harp – it sounds very distorted. He had a completely unorthodox approach to the piano at the time of writing.
Ferrante & Teicher African Echoes (1956)
This track is an example of prepared piano being used in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was coming into its own. Played by a well-known duo, this piece has such virtuosity and humour. Ferrante & Teicher were known for playing show tunes and film soundtracks on the piano, but later experimented with prepared pianos, exploring how they could make the instrument sound electronically synthesised.
Bill Wells & Stefan Schneider Pntps 88 (2010)
I’ve known Stefan Schneider for a long time, and he’s a very interesting musician. Bill Wells is also a very intuitive pianist, and the pair released a collaborative album titled Pianotapes in 2010. This track uses stripped-back single piano notes with percussive sounds from Schneider’s tape machines, which are playing music back at altered speeds.
Kelly Moran Limonium (2017)
Kelly Moran plays the piano in a way that’s quite close in style to electronic or dance music yet still holds the warmth of the piano as an organic, acoustic instrument. In this piece, she places corkscrews on the piano wires to interrupt the sound.
Aphex Twin Ruglen Holon (2001)
Aphex Twin has such an interesting, experimental approach to music and the style of his productions is always so unusual. In this piece, taken from his 2001 album Drukqs, he uses prepared piano to create an especially airy atmopshere, with a real focus in creating space.
Hauschka’s new album ‘A Different Forest’ is out on 8 February on Sony Classical. He will be performing at St George’s in Bristol on Thursday 11 April and at the Barbican in London on Friday 12 April 2019.