Sound Forms for Piano – Experimental Music by Cowell, Cage, Johnston, and Nancorrow

1976 – New World Records


This compilation record features works by Henry Cowell, John Cage, Ben Johnston, and Conlon Nancarrow. The pianist on the recording is Robert Miller, who aside from being an in demand modern pianist, was an attorney. Much has been written about all the pieces played here so I am not going to go into super detail about the theories and techniques behind each piece. In the record itself, there are pages of documents explaining each piece and online resources will do a much better job than I can. What I would like to discuss is the way these pieces fit together and how they apply to using piano as a percussion instrument. We start with Henry Cowell’s pieces “The Banshee/Aeolian Harp” and “Piano Piece”. Cowell’s pieces feature playing the inside of the piano as well as clusters of notes (using your forearm to hit a bunch of notes simultaneously). This takes the piano past it’s normal function of tonality and brings it into the realm of a percussion instrument, the hits are done to contrast the expected. I like that it utilizes the piano for the large instrument that it is and all the sounds from created (the inside as well as the keys). These are bold pieces and it is a perfect start to the record. The next set features John Cage’s “Sonatas I, V, X, XII”. These push the instrument of the piano into another direction. He uses prepared piano techniques (putting clamps and other things inside the piano to change both the pitch and attack of certain notes). By doing this, he can make the piano sound like a kalimba, drum, and tons of other things. He is able to make interesting beats and backgrounds to melodies that sound like there are multiple instruments playing at once. This opens up tons of opportunities to stretch into the future. The Cage pieces are, at times, more melancholy and spacious, which is a perfect fit after the Cowell pieces. The second side of the record starts with Ben Johnston’s “Sonata for Microtonal Piano”. Researching Johnston has been interesting in that he dedicated much of his pieces to microtonalities and intonation expansions. He came up with a system for notation that fit his composition, which I think is pretty cool. Seeing these pieces through a percussive lens is easy when we think about using tension on drumheads to change pitch (like a timpani). Johnston’s songs may not sound “right” in a Western sense, but are genius when thought about percussively. His melodies and dynamics follow shapes rather than pitches. It reminds me of a jazz drumset solo. This flowing, at times creepy, composition flows perfectly into Nancarrow’s “Studies for Player Piano #1, #27, #36). The complexity of time in these pieces is almost unfathomable. There are repeated patterns, on top of other repeated patterns, on top of other repeated patterns, all at their own tempos. It would be as if a few different percussion ensembles were playing different pieces simultaneously. Although this sounds crazy, it somehow works. Trying to dissect these studies from a rhythmic standpoint is staggering, I can’t even imagine trying to figure out the pitches. There is a reason that these were written for player piano, not to be played by humans, they would be impossible! It is uneasy to listen to at times, but always entertaining. It is a perfect end to this record. All these composers should be studied, listened to, and enjoyed. This is definitely not a “sit back and relax” record, it keeps you on your toes. It is almost information overload, but listening to and thinking about them in the context of composition and percussion leads to some interesting discoveries.