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Copyright © 2008 Tzenka Dianova.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced

or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and
retrieval system, now known or to be invented, without permission
in writing from the publisher.

First published in 2008 by

Mutasis Books
Suite 204 – 1157 Fairfield Road
Victoria BC Canada V8V 3A9

Editor for the press: Clint Hutzulak

Cover and text design by Mutasis Creative.

Portions of this book were first published,

in different form, in Musicworks magazine.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Dianova, Tzenka
John Cage's prepared piano: the nuts and bolts /
by Tzenka Dianova.

ISBN 978-0-9809657-0-4

1. Piano. 2. Cage, John--Criticism and interpretation. I. Title.

ML697.D538 2008 786.28 C2008-904049-X

Printed and bound in Canada

To the memory of my grandfather Ivan

Iwould like to thank all the people who contributed to

the realization of this volume with ideas and information; there
have been so many during the years:
My warmest thanks to Dr. Heath Lees at University of
Auckland, from whom I learned much about writing, and whose
challenging questions inspired some interesting discoveries.
I am indebted to Phillippa McKeown-Green, head librarian of
the University of Auckland Music Library, who tracked down and
obtained every single music score, recording and book that I
needed for my research.
I appreciate the help of Prof. Marina Kapatzinskaya, who
suggested that I share my experiences in writing; Profs. Michael
Longton, Bruce Vogt and Tamas Vesmas for granting me per-
mission to prepare the concert pianos at the Universities of
Victoria and Auckland; Eric Schandall, piano technician for
Steinway & Sons, who taught me how to prepare pianos safely
and effectively; Dr. Laura Kuhn ( John Cage Trust), Dr. Scott
Klein, and Aurel Hollo (Amadinda Percussion Ensemble) for
assisting me with my research.
Last, but not least, thanks go to my family, Isis and Clint, for all
the emotional support, and for helping me trust my ability to
write about the amazing experiences accompanying my work.
© David O. Garcia. Used with permission.

xi Foreword

viii Preface

Getting Prepared to Prepare a Piano

3 Piano performers of today—

artists or music historians?
Comments on the diminished connection between
composers, performers and audience from the late
nineteenth century onward, introducing the idea that
John Cage’s prepared piano music could play a significant
role in revitalizing that connection

6 John Cage’s prepared piano: a bridge between

pre- and post-twentieth century music
Its importance for performers and audience

11 Cage and his audiences

The grounds for John Cage’s popularity
13 Why Cage’s prepared piano music is not part of the
established piano repertoire
The results of a survey carried out amongst professional
pianists and piano students offer insight to this apparent

17 Is it dangerous for the piano?

Ungrounded fears and misconceptions about piano

20 The prepared piano safety manual

How to avoid harming the piano while working on it;
the dangers and the challenges

26 The objects
A practical guide to the objects used in John Cage’s
prepared piano music, including numerous illustrations
of materials and safe insertion techniques

Playing the Prepared Piano

49 How the piano came to be prepared

Viewing the invention from several perspectives

55 Percussion, prepared piano and dance

The synthesis of the three in John Cage’s prepared piano
works of the 1940s

58 Some differences between playing a regular and a

prepared piano
The piano as a percussion instrument(s)
The Works

65 Preamble
A complete descriptive guide to John Cage’s solo and
chamber works featuring prepared or string piano

159 Afterword

161 A few random tributes to Indeterminacy

163 Endnotes

170 Selected Bibliography

174 Discography and Videography

175 Internet Resources


this book is based on the thesis that Dr. Tzenka Dianova

submitted for her dma at the University of Auckland in April
2007. John Cage’s Prepared Piano: The Nuts & Bolts is beautifully
written and offers Cage aficionados and professional pianists alike
a rare understanding of the multi-faceted artistic nature of his
work. The music that is this book’s subject was written before 1950;
as early as that Cage had left his footprint indelibly on the musical
landscape of the twentieth century. Percussion works like First and
Second Construction, Credo In Us and Amores, which include move-
ments for prepared piano, have already found their way into the
contemporary concert repertoire. But works like Three Dances for
Two Amplified Prepared Pianos and Sonatas and Interludes, arguably
Cage’s showcase works for prepared piano, along with a host of
other smaller works including Bacchanale, Cage’s first composition
for the instrument, have been less easily absorbed into the main-
stream repertoire of contemporary solo pianists.
During the second half of the twentieth century electronics
changed the musical landscape, and new music has become
increasingly allied to the development of new technology. Today
digital samplers allow musicians to assign digitized sounds to the
notes on a standard midi keyboard, a concept that owes much to
the prepared piano developed by Cage.
The prepared piano represents some of the earliest instances of
experimental music in the concert tradition, where composing
had become inseparable from the process of instrument-build-
ing; composing for prepared piano in effect requires reconstruc-

tion of the instrument with an extensible lexicon of percussive
sounds. New sounds are created by inserting various materials
such as rubber, pieces of wood, bolts and screws etc. between the
piano strings.
In Tzenka Dianova’s work it is the performer who has chosen
to extend the conventional boundaries of concert performance.
Her creative practice involves not only a mastery of contemporary
concert repertoire but also an active engagement in the process of
piano preparation.
This book addresses problems that challenge the development
of new repertoire for a traditional musical instrument, and docu-
ments the process of piano preparation. It includes a thoroughly
researched and sorely needed illustrated manual for safe piano
preparation. This can help the next generation of classically
trained pianists overcome resistance to piano preparation from
other pianists, piano technicians and concert managers, by
addressing the (understandable) concerns of maltreatment of the
instrument. Dr. Dianova’s manual also addresses for the first time
the problem of preparation materials, called for by Cage, that have
become obsolete or are simply unavailable.
Dr. Dianova shows a rare understanding of the craft of the
concert-piano technician. Her concept of the instrument builds
upon the mechanical refinements to piano design of the nine-
teenth century, to accommodate one of the most significant musi-
cal developments of the twentieth—the prepared piano.
It is not uncommon to read or hear endorsements of Cagean
aesthetics from artists working in disciplines other than music—a
point that serves to illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of Cage’s
work—but it is a much more refreshing endorsement of Cage’s
musical contribution to read a book such as this, written by a per-
former committed to the ongoing development of the piano; a per-
fomer who has actually experienced Cage’s prepared piano music.

–Dr. Greg Schiemer

University of Wollongong
July 2008


For the most part, it will be Cage’s earlier work—the prepared piano
music above all—that will appeal and continue to appeal to a
growing public.
–eric salzman: The Imaginary Landscaper

I first heard Cage’s prepared piano music in 1998. It was

instant love, and I have been studying and performing it ever
since. Over the years, I attempted to familiarize myself with the
literature available on the subject—an ongoing process which to
my disappointment yielded a very limited amount of informa-
tion, descriptive or critical.
Cage’s prepared piano has been mentioned in many articles and
biographical works on his life and music; Sonatas and Interludes
and Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra have been
analyzed in detail by numerous scholars. Yet, so far, there has not
been a book in the English language that brings together in one
source the information needed to fully understand this instrument
and to use it with confidence. In addition, there is a crying need for
a descriptive guide to the 38 pieces Cage composed, featuring his
amazing invention.
In 1973 the Colorado College Music Press published The Well
Prepared Piano by Richard Bunger,¹ with a foreword written by
Cage himself. The book dealt mainly with the technical side of
piano preparation, such as suitable objects and materials and the

safe techniques for their placement between the strings. It dis-
cussed the prepared piano in general, not as in Cage’s music in
particular. Although certain information cannot be found in that
volume—for example a description of the plastic bridge called for
in Concerto for Prepared Piano—it nevertheless is a detailed and
comprehensive guide, richly illustrated with pictorial samples.
Unfortunately, the book does not offer information on Cage’s
works for this instrument. Moreover, it has been out of print since
its second press run in 1981.
Intensive Internet or library research might tell the interested
inquirer that there exists a dissertation-format volume, entitled
Das Präparierte Klavier Des John Cage. This dissertation was writ-
ten by German musicologist Monika Fürst-Heidtmann and pub-
lished in German, in an edition by G. Bosse. Its main subject is the
acoustic phenomena associated with the prepared piano, although
it also includes analyses of four or five out of the 38 pieces Cage
wrote for the instrument. The author mentions some interesting
facts regarding preparation materials, and offers a descriptive list
of the exact objects Maro Ajemian found best-suited for Sonatas
and Interludes.
This work has never been translated into English and is not
available for sale; the language barrier, together with its highly
academic style of writing and its unavailability, make it inaccessi-
ble to both young pianists and to the wider music audience
around the world.
Since information was not available, I had to experiment—in
the beginning with the help of a piano technician, later on my
own. Identifying and finding all materials needed for a proper
preparation took a while. Analyzing and making sense of Cage’s
pieces for the altered piano was even harder, but it proved to be a
fascinating and deeply rewarding process.
After a few years, I had gathered a substantial amount of infor-
mation. Considering the increasing interest in the subject from
both pianists and audience, I decided to put it into writing,
together with the experiences and reflections that accompanied
my work. The result is this set of interrelated chapters dealing

with the many aspects of prepared piano use, technical as well as
aesthetic. Here I have tried to answer questions that I found chal-
lenging, such as: how is Cage’s prepared piano music important for
pianists or audience, what is its significance, and why is it not per-
formed as regularly as it ought to be?
I purposely avoided discussing facts easily available from
other sources. In the last two decades much has been written and
said about John Cage’s life, art and philosophy. The best accounts
originate from musicologists and art critics who knew him in
person, who had the privilege to converse and correspond with
him, and were present at the premiers of his music; to paraphrase
what is found in their writings would be, at best, second-hand
Finally, a warning note: what I present here is not intended to
be read and accepted as absolute; to claim that there is only one
definitive way of preparing a piano or performing the music com-
posed for it would be very un-Cagean indeed. Instead, the infor-
mation shared herein is meant to empower pianists with the
knowledge and confidence needed to experiment on their own
and to trust the results, whatever they may be.

The prepared piano
safety manual

Never force an object between the strings.

–richard bunger: The Well Prepared Piano

History and experience teach that safety is possible

only with knowledge. What knowledge does one need
where the prepared piano is concerned?
It was already mentioned that pianists contemplating the per-
formance of prepared piano music for a first time should, ideally,
employ the assistance of an expert piano technician. Practice has
convinced me that no piano other than a Steinway is more suitable
to showcase Cage’s prepared piano music at its best. Blindly
“experimenting” on such a piano, risking serious, even irreparable
damage, is inadvisable to say the least.
Interaction with piano technicians should not be regarded
with apprehension; it can truly benefit any pianist. These profes-
sionals can help in many ways: they can identify puzzling prepa-
ration objects, explain and demonstrate how an object’s size or
positioning will affect the pitch and timbre of the sound and, most
importantly, teach a pianist how to avoid accidents or damage to
the piano while working on its alteration.
Some pianists, however, might not be able to engage a techni-
cian; this was one of the main reasons that compelled me to write

this book and to share my knowledge. Below is a list of facts, the
awareness of which has proved invaluable in my work on piano
preparation. The list is divided into two sections—The dangers,
dealing with practices that can be potentially harmful to the piano,
and The challenges, which will prepare pianists for some obstacles
they might have to overcome during their work on piano alteration.

The dangers
If the mind is disciplined, the heart turns quickly from fear to love.
–john cage: Silence

• Many people are terrified by the thought of touching the piano

strings with metal objects. Contrary to popular misunder-
standing though, metal can be less threatening to the strings
than a human hand. While working on inserting objects
between the strings, the natural oils and acidic moisture found
on the skin of the palms can cause the strings to eventually
corrode. Some pianists, like Richard Bunger, advise the use of
a screwdriver to separate the strings. In my work, I find that
using my fingers helps control the pressure better. The poten-
tial harm can be avoided by washing one’s hands meticulously
before touching the strings, or by wearing tight-fitting latex
gloves during the process.

• For me, placing a soft cloth underneath the strings while work-
ing inside the piano has proved an absolute must; such practice
helps prevent scratches to the soundboard that might occur
as a result of bolts or screws sliding down. Scratching the
soundboard can alter the piano’s sound quality and is difficult
and costly to repair.

• The only way to avoid harming the delicate dampers corre-
sponding to most piano strings is to hold the sustain pedal
down while working on the strings. Failing to do so will cause
the strings—as they are being separated in order to insert
objects between them—to cut into the felt of the dampers and
to damage them. Damper repair is very costly, too.

• Forcing the strings apart by using too large an object will most
probably damage them, as well as their corresponding
dampers. Moreover, the sound resulting from strings prepared
in such a manner will be unsatisfactory, as the dampers will not
be able to efficiently mute them.

• If objects are too small in diameter, they will slide down between
the strings during performance and scratch the wooden part of
the soundboard. Playing strings prepared with loosely fitting
objects will produce an undesirable buzz and, if the objects slide
down, knocks. John Cage himself said that the appropriate size
of an object is that which ensures a snug fit between strings, so
that it doesn’t become dislodged during performance.

• Placing an object too close to either end of the strings can cause
damage to the strings and tuning pins, especially if the object
is large, or is horizontally inserted.

• Placing any objects on top of the piano while working on its

preparation poses the risk of some of them slipping inside the
instrument, causing damage to its soundboard and/or other
parts. The process of retrieving any such object can be long
and complicated; sometimes it might even require taking the
piano apart. Therefore, it is imperative to keep all materials on
a table or a stand beside the piano and work carefully with only
one at a time. If by accident an object falls inside, I strongly
advise against playing the piano before that object is retrieved,
as the vibrations will set it into motion, causing scratches to the
soundboard or other parts. If it is impossible to extricate the

object without the help of a technician, the best thing to do is
to wait until the technician arrives.

The challenges
The conscientious objectors to modern music will, of course,
attempt everything in the way of counter-revolution.
–john cage: Silence

• A written permission to prepare a piano is a must; it is best to

obtain permission from the person who is in charge of the
instrument in question. Failing to have such a document will
most probably cause problems, no matter how harmless one
might believe their piano alteration practice would be. When
requesting the permission, it is important to explain exactly
what will be done to the piano, and how the possible dangers
will be safely avoided.

• A small part of Cage’s prepared piano music can be played on

almost any grand piano. I have performed Bacchanale on three
different Steinways, a Bösendorfer, two Yamahas, a Kawai and
a Baldwin, all of different sizes, all resulting in a satisfactory
sound. It is the almost-all-felt preparation, such as that of
Bacchanale, that makes practically any grand suitable; how-
ever, there are only a few such pieces. Works like Sonatas and
Interludes, on the other hand, make a completely different case;
my experience has convinced me that it is next to impossible to
achieve a beautiful, rich, and varied sound on any piano other
than a Steinway (a six-foot or a concert grand). Therefore, I
believe that it is unwise to commit to a performance of pre-
pared piano music before having tested the instrument in ques-

tion. The results might be perfectly fine or they might be dis-
astrous. One example from my practice is telling: in 1999 I
agreed to perform Sonatas and Interludes on an excellent con-
cert grand Yamaha. I prepared the piano and worked on it for
over a week, constantly moving and changing the objects in an
attempt to make the piano sound “properly.” Alas, that just
did not seem possible, and only two days before the concert I
had to give up and beg for the use of a Steinway, which had to
be specially brought in at an additional expense. From this
stressful experience I learned that due to the differences in the
instruments’ specifics, metal preparation—such as bolts and
screws—changes the different pianos’ sound in different ways,
making this particular Yamaha’s sound unsatisfactory, as it did
not offer enough reverberance and warmth of sound. To save
oneself from similar situations, one simply must try an instru-
ment before undertaking to prepare it.

• One factor that can make a pianist’s work particularly hard is

the string crossing in the lower register, which differs from
instrument to instrument. When Cage conducted his alter-
ation experiments, he used his own six-foot Steinway model .
In some works he prescribed the use of large bolts in the lower
register, which must have been easy to realize on his instru-
ment. However, on most of today’s pianos such preparation
may be impossible, as any longer objects will touch the differ-
ently-overlaid strings. In such cases I use shorter objects (see
figure 1), or even two if necessary, in order to achieve the
“proper” sound.

fig. 1

• There is normally one diameter-size of metal bolts/screws that

will fit snugly between the strings of a particular grand piano.
However, when certain pianos are prepared with the properly
fitting size bolts, a slight buzz is heard, which indicates that the
bolts are a trifle too thin. Then the next size up might be much
too large. This problem can be very frustrating and may even
prove impossible to resolve. One way to attempt its solution is
to slide the bolt/screw along the string until a position is found
in which no buzz is produced. This might work or it might
not; if it does, one should not be much troubled if the resulting
pitch differs from a desired one. In the long run, a “strange”
pitch is a lesser evil than an unwanted buzz, all the more so
since the buzz will be audible when playing all strings, not just
the “problematic” one. In extreme cases where a “good” posi-
tion simply cannot be found, a complete replacement of the
object (with rubber, plastic etc.) might be necessary. Such a
substitution is done at the performer’s informed discretion. If
more than two of the prepared strings buzz, then the piano
used is simply not suitable for the attempted alteration.

The objects

In short, we must explore the materials of music.

–john cage: Silence

ohn cage knew his hardware—this is evident by

J the wide variety of bolts, screws and other objects he mentioned
in his preparation instructions. Most of the preparation instruc-
tion tables, however, do not describe the objects in detail, aside
from mentioning their names. Bolts are simply “long” or “large,”
but how long or large is not specified. Cage wrote “rubber” and
“plastic,” but what rubber and plastic exactly, how thin or thick, pli-
able or brittle, is not clear. Some of the materials he used, such as
a typewriter bolt or fibrous weather-stripping, are not available
today—for them we have to find suitable substitutes.
At first, the vagueness of some of the instruction tables might
be frustrating, yet one soon learns to appreciate it as it allows the
freedom to experiment and choose on one’s own.
It naturally follows that the process of recreating piano prepa-
ration requires extra inventiveness and dexterity, as well as solid
background knowledge. Experimenting is recommended only
when performed in an expert and responsible manner.
I have listed below the few excerpts from Cage’s writings—
mainly from the performance instructions to Amores unless oth-
erwise indicated—in which recommendations for and description
of correct preparation are given:

• The screw must be large enough and so positioned on and
between the strings as to produce a resonant sound, rich in

• If the screw is too small in diameter, an undesired metallic

buzz will occur when the proper key is played.

• Choose nuts that are large enough to slide freely on the

screw [bolt], yet small enough so that they do not slide off
the screw-head [bolt-head] end.

• Bolts are used in the lower register, rather than screws,

because of their greater diameter, necessary in muting the
longer strings to achieve the desired result: a sound reso-
nant, rich in harmonics and free of any metallic buzzing.

• The piano was transformed into a percussion orchestra hav-

ing the loudness, say, of a harpsichord. (From Autobiograph-
ical Statement)

• The total desired result has been achieved if, on a comple-

tion of the preparation, one may play the pertinent keys
without sensing that he is playing a piano or even a ‘prepared
piano’. An instrument having convincingly its own special
characteristics, not even suggesting those of a piano, must be
the result.

• The size and position of… all mutes may be determined by


Here follows an illustrated guide to the objects, which I have

found safe and effective in my own work on prepared piano music.
I have taken into consideration that no two countries in the world
would have exactly the same hardware in store; therefore, instead
of giving exact names, measures etc., I have described and pic-

tured these objects and the way they would ideally fit between
the piano strings and alter its sound.
It is good to keep in mind that certain items (such as metal
bolts and screws) will alter not only the timbre, but also the pitch
of a tone, which makes it important to know two simple laws:

• Adding mass to the strings elongates their vibrating surface

and results in a lower pitch.

• Spreading the strings apart increases their tension and

results in a higher pitch.

It follows that using objects that are both long and wide is ineffec-
tive. Furthermore, pulling the piano strings apart or preparing
them with objects of large diameter can be detrimental to certain
parts of the instrument, and is strongly advised against. If a varia-
tion in pitch is desired, it can be achieved by other means, such as:

• Adding more mass by using longer items, as opposed to ones

with bigger diameter. One will find that there is a limiting
factor to that, as too long an object will not stay upright.
Special care should be taken that long objects do not touch
the soundboard of the piano. If there is a possibility that
they might (due to slipping down during performance), a
strip of soft cloth should be placed underneath them (as
shown in figure 2), so as to prevent possible scratches to
the soundboard.

fig. 2

• Adding even more mass to an object—such as a screw—by

screwing nut(s) etc. to its upper part (not touching the
strings). For examples see figure 3.

fig. 3

• Moving the object lengthwise along the strings, in order to

find a desired pitch. When and where the object touches the
string’s node, the original pitch will be most distinctive.

A special note should be made about the meticulous placement

measurements Cage inscribed in some of his later works’ prepara-
tion instructions, such as those of Sonatas and Interludes and
Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra. (Some of
these measurements are as precise as ⁄ of an inch. )

A Note About the Author

since her debut at age five, Bulgarian-born pianist

Tzenka Dianova has been extremely active on stage, both as a
soloist and a chamber musician, winning numerous prizes in
national and international competitions. She began her educa-
tion at the State School of Music in Pleven, under the guidance of
eminent Bulgarian pedagogue Prof. Eleonora Karamisheva.
Further studies include a Magister degree from the State
Academy of Music in Sofia, with Prof. Marina Kapatzinskaya,
and a Diploma from the Summer School at Salzburg’s
Mozarteum, with Prof. Dmitri Bashkirov. In 1998 the pianist
moved to Canada, where she pursued her interest in twentieth-
century and contemporary avant-garde music. For the last ten
years, Dr. Dianova has performed, taught and lectured on the
music of the past century, with the firm belief in and the ultimate
goal of its incorporation in the standard piano repertoire. She has
commissioned numerous new works for piano, harpsichord, pre-
pared and string piano and mixed media.
Tzenka Dianova holds a doctoral degree from the University of
Auckland and has a special interest in the prepared piano music of
John Cage. She lives with her family in Victoria, Canada.
For detailed information, audio samples and repertoire list,
please visit the author’s site at www.tzenkadianova.com

‘ is
beautifully written and offers Cage aficionados and
professional pianists alike a rare understanding of
the multi-faceted artistic nature of his work.’
– From the foreword by Dr. Greg Schiemer

At last, a book on the prepared piano of John Cage, dedicated both

to the instrument itself and to the repertoire Cage created for it.
It serves as an illustrated guide for pianists interested in exploring
the world of the prepared piano, as well as an accessible source of
information for the innumerable non-musician Cage-lovers.

Bulgarian-born pianist Tzenka Dianova has been extremely active

on stage, both as a soloist and chamber musician, winning numerous
prizes in national and international competitions. In 1998 the pianist
moved to Canada, where she pursued her interest in twentieth-
century and contemporary avant-garde music. She holds a doctoral
degree from the University of Auckland and has a special interest in
the prepared piano music of John Cage. She lives with her family in
Victoria, Canada. tzenkadianova.com

Music | Performance Theory

A Mutasis book ISBN-10:0-9809657-0-5

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Printed and bound in Canada 9 780980 965704