Around the World in 88 Ways

Words by Pascal Wyse

Of all the unusual approaches to the piano in the name of music, my favourite has to be found in the instructions for La Monte Young’s Piano Piece for David Tudor #1, written as part of his Compositions 1960:

“Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano or leave it to eat by itself. If the former, the piece is over after the piano has been fed. If the latter, it is over after the piano eats or decides not to.”

Other pieces in the series require you to “build a fire in front of the audience”, release a butterfly in to the performance room, and – his big dancefloor hit – a score consisting of the the notes B3 and F#4 “To be held for a long time.” 

Why has it come to this? Yes, you’ve guessed, Piano Day is here again – timed to occur on the 88th day of the year (March 29) as a nod to the number of notes on a full-size keyboard.

Along with simultaneous worldwide gigs and gatherings, this is the second year pianoday.org is promoting the “Give a piano” initiative, whereby unused pianos can find a pianist in need. “Why does the world need a Piano Day?” asks Nils Frahm. “For many reasons. But mostly, because it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.” And, of course, hay.

A year ago we celebrated in the Journal with Hammer Time, and aside from the odd exotic excursion involving pianos that whack caged cats to make sounds, it was a journey in to just how such an instrument – which, as Laurel and Hardy confirmed, is hardly portable – has found its way in to so many areas of music, and so many venues, old and new. That universality has been seized by players and composers, but they have also pushed the instrument to be even more – hacking and adapting it to investigate the further reaches of its sonic potential. 

The most famous piano hack is probably what the American composer John Cage called the “prepared” piano. Screws, rubbers and other objects are placed on or around the strings and hammers to dampen or effect the sound in various ways.

By the late 1930s, Cage was working a lot with dancers and was more preoccupied with sound and silence, the alternating textures that create rhythm, and those sounds didn’t need to be notes. They could be anything. As Robert Worby explains in a piece for Warp, necessity was the mother of invention when Cage was faced with a problem of space.

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.”

Cage remembered his teacher Henry Cowell, who extended the normal way of playing the piano by literally getting under the bonnet: plucking, strumming, rubbing along the strings. Experimenting with household objects such as screws, Cage found his answer and a new instrument was born. 

At the time, this sound may have been challengingly alien. To contemporary ears, familiarity has domesticated it. The prepared piano’s cranky overtones and rattlings could accompany a horror film, but they can equally satisfy more comic styles with a mechanical, toybox feel and a slapstick sound not far off a ruler being twanged. I think there’s even some on CBeebies Dinopaws. Check out Ferrante and Teicher’s Blast Off! album of 1959 for some pretty cosmic usage. And Aphex Twin’s Drukqs. That famous sound of the Tardis taking off in Doctor Who was Brian Hodgson strumming his front door key against the strings of the gutted BBC Radiophonic Workshop piano. His key got bent in the process. 

There’s no escaping, too, how such preparations can give the piano a more primitive sound – something Jerry Goldsmith put to great use on his score for the original Planet of the Apes. Even with your myriad ways of producing the previously unheard with electronics, there’s something very satisfying about this being done in a very physical way that we can see as well as hear. See Hauschka’s improvisations, where the inside of the piano bounces around with ping-pong balls, EBows and what looks like half the contents of a toolbox, and Sarah Nicholls’ inside-out pianos, which allow her even easier access to the inner workings for such extended playing. 

Last year, for Hammer Time, I spoke to pianist Rolf Hind. He is currently curating a festival called Occupy the Pianos, which will take place at St John’s Smith Square in London from April 20. I felt pretty sure his relationship with the piano had gone well beyond the keys.

I have stroked pianos, stood on the lid, sung to them, drummed on every surface, played the strings, tapped on the various parts of the pedal mechanism, hugged one from the keyboard side, whistled and shouted at them. There is a piece by Nam June Paik, I think, where you have to destroy the piano, chopping it into little pieces and pass it through a keyhole of a door on stage. I haven’t done that one. One of the things we are presenting at Occupy the Pianos is the Romanian composer Radulescu’s take on grand pianos called The Icon, which is basically an eviscerated grand laid on its side, detuned and the strings bowed with hair (there’s no keyboard or action left.) He wrote for choirs of these instruments.”

Back in the world of La Monte Young and his 1960s compositions, the piano returns for Piano Piece for Terry Riley #1. Here are the instructions: “Push the piano up to a wall and put the flat side flush against it. Then continue pushing into the wall. Push as hard as you can. If the piano goes through the wall, keep pushing in the same direction regardless of new obstacles and continue to push as hard as you can whether the piano is stopped against an obstacle or moving. The piece is over when you are too exhausted to push any longer.”