By Carolyn Heneghan
This year marks the 100th birthday of the lauded avant-garde American composer John Cage (1912-1982). In his honor, Larson Associates and the John Cage Trust have developed the John Cage Piano app, which puts Cage’s most famous invention, the prepared piano, at your fingertips via your iPhone, iPad, or Android device.
As the story goes, in 1938 dancer and choreographer Syvilla Fort commissioned Cage to write music for a dance, “Bacchanale,” using no percussive instruments, as only a grand piano would be available. Essentially he would have to create the clear, rhythmic beats of an entire percussion section—generally necessary for dance music—using only the two hands of a pianist.
His idea was to somehow sharpen the notes vibrating from the piano’s strings to alter the instrument’s timbre and emulate those percussive sounds. And thus Cage’s first “prepared piano” included objects such as screws, bolts, and scraps of plastic placed beneath or between the strings to create new, percussive sounds. These objects effectively transformed the piano into what Cage referred to as an “exploded keyboard.”
Though Cage did not invent the concept of altering instruments for new sounds, he certainly aided in the prepared piano’s surge in popularity among modern experimental composers. And now, with the creation of the John Cage Piano app, you too can create your own prepared piano pieces and share them with the world.
The app itself features either nine or 30 squares—depending on if you get the paid or free version—which each contain one of the objects Cage would place on the strings. In these squares are one of 36 meticulously sampled sounds of the actual materials Cage used in his renowned Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48), as supervised by the John Cage Trust.
In addition to the objects, blank boxes are unaffected piano notes. The boxes contain not only a photo of the tool used to change the strings, but also the name of the note that object or piano sound would produce, which can be toggled on and off.
For example, a screw placed straight up might play a B7 while that a slightly shorter screw at a 30-degree angle would play a C6. The Shuffle button allows you to change which objects and piano notes are visible, which you are able to use for your recordings.
The Record button is simple to use, and begins recording what you’re playing with one tap, with one more tap to stop. After you’ve recorded your piece, you are prompted to name it, and then choose to play it or render it for sharing via Facebook, Twitter, and email.
The John Cage Piano app is available for free on the iPhone, iPad, and Android phones. The tablet versions, both for iOS and Android, are the app’s full installments with 30 available notes at a time, and cost $0.99.
The free version for iOS is here. The paid version is here.
Here a John Cage composition below: