88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

Henry Cowell coined the term “tone cluster,” although he wasn’t the first person to play one—and from roughly 1911 to 1936 he was one of America’s leading experimentalists, searching for new sounds and concepts. If, in terms of his romantically dense writing, Ives is the American analog to Schoenberg or Berg, and in terms of economy of notes, Ruggles‘ music is equivalent to that of Webern‘s, Cowell’s innovativeness ranks with the European then-contemporary independent researcher-composers like Josef Matthias Hauer, Alois Haba, and Ivan Wyschnegradsky.

Cowell’s piano pieces are miniature epiphanies or reports along the pathway of his continuous quest. On March 10, 1912, the day before his 15th birthday, Cowell gave the first public performance of his works. “The Tides of Manaunaun” (1912) is one of the cosmic Three Irish Legends (including “The Hero Sun,” 1922, and “The Voice of Lir,” 1919), which combine melodies with parallel or accompanying black key and white key tone clusters, played with fingers, full hands, and forearms alike. “Dynamic Motion” (1914) introduces the practice of silently depressing certain keys in order to produce artificial and natural harmonics that resonate after a cluster or other sharp accents. The Five Encores To “Dynamic Motion”–“What’s This” (1914), “Amiable Conversation” (1917), “Advertisement” (1914), “Antimony” (1914), and the subtle “Time Table” (1915)–employ clusters in more varied ways.

The “Anger Dance” (1914) uses modal material in a study about increasing obsessiveness: musical figures get caught between double bars that cause ten, then eight, four, eight and six repetitions. Similar to the way in which programmatic materials, like tone clusters as cannons, eventually become non-programmatic “open” material, such locked patterns would later become flowing phrases associated with sublime, meditative states in pattern or minimal music. The Nine Ings (1916)–“Floating,” “Frisking,” “Fleeting,” “Scooting,” “Wafting,” “Seething,” “Whisking,” “Sneaking,” “Swaying”–are also subtle studies in the musical representation of perceptual and emotional states. “Episode” (1916) is unfolded in scherzo-like dissonant counterpoint.

“Fabric” (1917) is a brief rhapsody woven from three contrapuntal lines each of which is on a different irrational sub-division of the beat: the top line, written in triangle-shaped notes, sings in either two triplets or seven beats to a 2/4 measure; the middle alto line which carries the principal melody is notated in square-shaped notes and moves in a five-beat pattern to the measure; the constantly flowing bass is grouped in eight sixteenths, written in regular round notes, or in nine sixteenths written in squares. (Cowell proposes that we call notes by their actual names; thus, a triplet of half notes would be called third notes because they are considered 1/3 of a whole note.) As complex as this may look on the page, the whole is quite playable and falls beautifully under the hands. Such simultaneous complex interaction of beat relationships is realized to a further extreme in Cowell’s Quartet Romantic (1915-1917) for two flutes, violin and viola, where a measure may consist of six 2/3 quarter notes, five 1/3 quarter notes, four quarter notes, and two 2/3 quarter notes at the same time. These relationships were derived from Cowell’s studies in resultant beat frequencies in a physics lab in preparation for the construction of the Rhythmicon built by the legendary Leon Theremin.

“Exultation” (1919), like Cowell’s Quartet Euphometric (1916-1919), uses overlapping meters but not sub-divided beats. “Vestiges” (1920) uses the same practice applied to exquisite chromatically modulated bitonality.

Aeolian Harp (1923), one of Cowell’s best-known works, is played entirely on the strings inside the piano using the fingernail or the flesh. The single chords are depressed silently on the keys (which lift the dampers for those notes) and the strings are strummed in the manner of an autoharp. The sound is delicate and unearthly.

Cowell’s other well-known work, The Banshee (1925), is also played directly on the strings but here the sustaining pedal is held down for the entire work while glissandi of different lengths create a ghostly smear effect, the closest a piano can come to a mournful keening. There are pizzicati with the fingernails, and various manners of sweeping the strings. The melody of The Fairy Bells (1929) is played pizzicato on the high strings while gentle clusters accompany it on the keyboard. The energetic Piano Concerto (1929) makes extensive use of tone clusters and other previous Cowell devices. Sinister Resonance (1930) uses finger damping of the strings to create ethereal overtone melodies.

In 1938, John Cage was asked to provide music for an African-inspired dance (Bacchanale) by Syvilla Fort but there was no room in the theater for percussion instruments—just a lonely small grand piano on the audience’s left. By asking the pianist to place objects (rubber erasers, screws, bolts, etc.) between the strings of the piano—affecting their timbre, overtone, amplitude, and attack characteristics—Cage created his small percussion orchestra, now known as a “prepared piano“. Along with his many works for percussion during this time, Cage created several works for his “new” instrument, including: And the Earth Shall Bear Again (1942), In the Name of the Holocaust (1942), Amores for prepared piano and percussion (1943), Tossed As It Is Untroubled (Meditation) (1943), and The Perilous Night (1944), as well as A Book of Music (1944) and Three Dances (1945) which are scored for two prepared pianos, and were premiered by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold.

In the 1930s, when Cage was working as an assistant to Oskar Fischinger in order to prepare himself to create a soundtrack for one of the experimental filmmaker’s works, Fischinger said to him, “Everything in the world has its own spirit which can be released by setting it into vibration.” From that time on, “percussion” came to mean for Cage the spirit in which one really listens to sounds, hitting, rubbing, thumping every object within reach completely “open” to whatever sound that occurs.

Cage’s famous Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946 – 1948) exhibit a perfect combination of considered improvisation by employing small variations on short, well-defined, isolated melodic patterns, and the spirit of percussion-listening, in the way that timbral characteristics and the duration of each note are often related (like playing quicker on the more non-resonant prepared keys) and the way that the “sounds” of the keys themselves are full of contrasts and surprises. In this piece and other early works Cage discovered a rhythmic structure (making use of fractals and the golden section) based on proportions expressed in smaller phrases, multiplied to create the the total structure—meaning the “micro” of the smaller phrase lengths is in direct relationship to the “macro” of the piece as a whole.

In Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1950/51), the ensemble of 22 soloists produces a vast soundscape determined from charts of “gamuts” that also fix their succession. In the Third Part, Cage for the first time employs the Chinese divinatory and philosophical book known as the I-Ching (Y-King) or Book of Changes, to make musical choices by chance methods (this is done by concentrating on a question while randomly throwing three coins or 52 yarrow sticks resulting in one of 64 hexagrams each associated with a text), “making,” as Cage says in An Autobiographical Statement, “my responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices.”

Lucia Dlugoszewski was enraptured by sounds-per-se her whole life. In 1949 she created her Moving Space Theater Piece for Everyday Sounds and in 1958-1960 her Suchness Concert for 100 invented percussion instruments. Influenced by Henry Cowell’s compositions, by John Cage’s prepared piano and David Tudor’s realizations of Cage’s work (most notably. his famous realization of the Solo from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, 1957), she took the idea of playing on every surface of the piano (keys, metal frame, inside strings, wood frame, pedals) a step further by inventing an impressive number of new techniques for what Robert Sabin, one-time editor of Musical America, dubbed the “timbre piano”. Her Concert of Many Rooms and Moving Space (1960) used it within an ensemble, followed by her Five Radiant Grounds (1961) Archaic Aggregates, White Interval Music (1961), Skylark Cicada (1964), Swift Music (1965), Dazzle On A Knife’s Edge (1966), and other ensemble works incorporating the timbre piano.

Her improvisations through the 1990s included such devices on the strings and sounds as: metal rods scraped across the strings and used to beat them, glass balls dragged along the length of the strings producing wailing harmonics, beating and scrapping simultaneously (very Harry Partch sounding), fast tremolos with various hand-held objects, glissandi with large floor tom-tom beaters (pedal on and off), objects bounced on strings, hand-muting and single harmonic muting, low rumbles on keys and mid-range playing with preparations inside, fingernail glissandi, striking keyboard notes and sliding along their individual strings, Cage-like preparations, small Chinese hand cymbals crashed onto strings with pedal on, Dobro-like mid-range glissandi, striking the strings with thimble on the fingers, employing woodblocks and hair combs as filters or tearing them out as vertical plectra or raking them in pairs slowly across the strings, wire cymbal brushes, glass bottles, tearing paper, lighting matches, striking the metal frame with hard beaters, foot-snapping the pedals, bowing the strings, etc.

Using bowed strings was explored further by Stephen Scott in two works in the mid-1980s: Minerva’s Web (1985) and The Tears of Niobe (1986) both scored for an ensemble of 10 musicians at one piano plucking the strings or bowing them with loops of material like strings and cloth. The effect is somewhat like slowly evolving waves of a giant harp or the smooth waveforms on a synthesizer. This richly harmonic tonal music is appealing with its surprising celestial and joyously rhythmic textures.

Canadian composer Gordon Monahan‘s “Piano Mechanics” for solo unaltered piano (1981-1986) is a collection or suite of new techniques for playing the piano—it is treated less as an instrument than as a sound-making sculpture. Many of the sounds have been used before in contemporary music, but never in such a sustained and focused manner. The techniques additionally require an ear sensitive to the momentary buildups of rushing waveforms and overtone changes, and the playing is also often very athletic and demanding. In Voices Emerging Along High Tension Wires the composer begins by violently pulling a cluster of adjacent strings inside the piano and then by subtle types of hand muting that brings out quasi-electronic sounds; in Solitary Waves, quickly reiterated single and then adjacent tones (with the sustaining pedal down) are accented in such a way that competing vibrations are set up, producing interference phenomena. In Trill with Hand-Controlled Pitch Release, the strings are muted and individual fingers are selectively released, resulting in a sound like early electronic music with popping “sample and hold” harmonics. In Melody Concealed by a Tremolo / High Trills Becoming Difference Tones, differing rates of arpeggiating high clusters and use of various depths of the sustaining pedal produces interesting sweeps. This Piano Thing for solo prepared piano (1989) is also an étude-like collection of new techniques: in “Piano Drilling,” a single pulse is established as various keys are struck and the sustaining pedal is alternately engaged and released (adding a kind of sizzle-cymbal sound to that of the preparations); in “Moving and Stationary,” preparations are slid up and down the strings as the keys are played, changing harmonics and fundamentals (resulting in dobro-like and bottleneck guitar-like slides). In “Screws, Nuts, Washers,” unequal arpeggios on the very highest prepared notes create a glassy, quasi-random effect. “Prelude – The Din of Demolition” begins with a slow normal prepared piano sound. The rhythm is gradually stretched and faster improvising sets in. The preparations start to sound less like individual notes than elements of a larger mass-texture, “the din of demolition”.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox