Inside the Piano: Chris Burn, Benoit Delbecq and Denman Maroney
For more than 75 years, pianists and composers thinking outside the box have gone inside the piano for new sounds. As early as 1923, Henry Cowell wrote pieces where damper-released strings are plucked and strummed. By 1938, John Cage had created the first prepared-piano pieces, in which nuts, bolts and other objects were inserted between specific strings to create percussive timbres when keyed. Successive waves of composers expanded the methodologies. Beginning in the ’70s, George Crumb excited strings with various objects, separately and in tandem with conventional keyboarding. In the ’80s, Stephen Scott (not the Sonny Rollins-affiliated pianist) crowded as many as nine people around a single grand piano, each using pocket-sized bows made with fishing line. In the ’60s, jazz pianists as varied as Keith Jarrett and Sun Ra began to go inside the piano for momentary exotica.
Yet for decades, inside techniques remained a novelty in jazz and improvised music. A laudable exception is Keith Tippett, who made these techniques a constant part of his work.
However, for Chris Burn, Benoît Delbecq and Denman Maroney—three of the more interesting pianists of any stripe to emerge in recent years—these techniques are central to their art. An avid Cowell interpreter, Burn is best known for his provocative solo works and for leading the London-based Ensemble, which has patented an absorbing, self-effacing style of collective improvisation. Delbecq’s prepared piano often has a tangy, gamelan tinge, as documented on CDs with the Paris-based trio the Recyclers and subsequent Songlines recordings with clarinetist François Houle and his own excellent quintet. In Maroney’s solo music and projects with other American masters of so-called extended techniques, flutist Robert Dick and bassist Mark Dresser, his self-dubbed “hyperpiano” is frequently more surreal than state-of-the-art computer music.
As these narratives reveal, these pianists’ aesthetics and methods are as varied as their respective music. While their approaches do not constitute a school of thought, per se, they certainly comprise a pool of options from which other pianists can draw from for years to come.
I have always felt that players such as [Duke] Ellington, [Thelonious] Monk, Alfred Brendel, [Cecil] Taylor, etc., only have to play one note and you hear it is them. Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I didn’t have and maybe still don’t have that way with the keyboard. I was playing what could be loosely called free jazz, playing in a generally Cecil Taylor mode. It was respect for Cecil Taylor that motivated me toward an alternative sound world. I needed to escape from the formidable baggage that the conventionally played piano carries. At university in the early ’70s, I had gone inside the instrument on occasion in contemporary classical compositions of my own and others; but in the Chris Burn Group, it was strictly keyboard. I was trying to find my own voice by putting objects on the strings. The resultant transformations of the instrument’s sound immediately pointed the way to new areas.
What I do isn’t prepared piano in the Cageian sense of the word. In fact, it differs radically. While Cage prepared the strings before the performance, I rarely touch a string before performances. Anyone could play a piano that I am to play and it would sound absolutely ordinary. However, I will have spent maybe an hour before the performance—two if time allows—adding identification stickers in a number of selected places on the instrument. These enable me to know that wherever I am working on the instrument—on the harp of the instrument or on other parts—I am accurate with note and pitch. Cowell’s method of depressing the key of the string he was about to work is inevitably much slower than the instant string recognition I have with my marking system.
I also use harmonics in my work, touching the string at various nodes like a guitarist or harpist. I don’t have the benefits of frets, so I have devised various systems to compensate. I use some intuition and educated guesswork, but I have found that gently laying thin strips of material on the soundboard, in line with the position of the harmonics, works well.
My playing does differ quite radically between solo and Ensemble work. There is much that I explore in my solo work that I wouldn’t touch on in Ensemble, or if I did, it would certainly be in a much-altered way. With Ensemble, I adopt a coloristic approach. True, there are parts where I do operate as a soloist or as a distinct voice with a duo, trio or quartet, but much of the time I find that I work with a sensitivity for a group sound rather than the collision of five, six, seven, eight or more individual voices. The sounds manufactured from within the piano are often ideally suited to this way of working. Some of the time this may mean that my contribution works on something akin to subliminal level. Soloing can incorporate this, but more often than not it works at a completely different level. For instance, before a solo concert, I find myself practicing a lot of different material than I would in my general practice. I like to keep the two apart, but there are inevitable crossovers.
It is up to others to say whether I have or have not made my own imprint upon the prepared piano. Just as there are many saxophonists who can count the use of multiphonics, slap tongue, flutter tongue and cyclical breathing as part of their technique, there is only one John Butcher and likewise only one Evan Parker. Certainly, others use many of the techniques I use to great effect; however, I have concentrated on developing specific techniques and methods. These include the use of harmonics and the combination of conventionally played notes with those that altered in some way. I notice that a lot of what I used in the beginning has been discarded and replaced with other new material and techniques. With many of the inside sounds, there is an initial temptation to use them along the keyboard’s capability of fast incessant sound generation. I do this in some situations, particularly in solo playing; however, much of the time I resist the temptation of allowing my fingers to get carried away.
In general, my interest in prepared piano is to create special rhythm fabrics that induce a different approach of playing. Sometimes, the complexity of the fabric—which is not a goal in itself—allows listeners to choose their own pace of listening. It comes from my humble intuition to expand Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic philosophy; also to propose a certain quality of sound for each tune. It also comes from Steve Coleman’s work, with whom I studied in Banff, where the form and increments contained in a composition triggers a certain way of playing, and thereby creates a certain ‘ear attitude’ for each piece. Prepared piano gives the other musicians and me another dimension to explore.
Most of what I use to prepare the piano is wood and triangular pieces of eraser. The wood pieces are sharpened to be jammed between the strings. They are generally between five and 15 centimeters long. I find that different types of wood—rosewood, pine, baobab, whatever I find on the road—have different timbres, and that the harder the wood, the lower the sound. I also notch the wood so they don’t jump off the strings while playing. To get the gamelan sound, I prepare two strings out of three in the highs, leaving one string untouched. This gives me a mix of tempered and unharmonic tones. For metallic or sanzalike [thumb piano] resonances, I glue little metal tubes containing little nails to the wood pieces. Smaller pieces of eraser are more precise in obtaining an overtone, linked to the arithmetical division of the string: at half of the string, a powerful octave, etc. Sometimes, I can hit C3, C4 and C5 and get the same pitch with a different timbre, which can create subtle variations.
The main problem with prepared piano lies in its acoustic output. Depending on the instrument you’re playing on—a prepared piano paradox: a D-Steinway is less interesting dynamic wise than a crap Yamaha baby grand—you definitely have to increase the energy to trigger a decent acoustic power. It does induce a chamber-music feel to the band, and it is always a challenge for a drummer to mix nicely into those sound fabrics. Thankfully, drummers I work with, like Steve Argüelles and Chander Sardjoe, are extremely subtle, and I don’t have to force the power too much. I’ve hurt myself in the past doing that, and I’m being particularly careful.
There are difficulties balancing the dynamics of the two hands when only one hand is playing prepared, as the normal sounds [of the piano strings] are way louder than the prepared. Actually, playing a prepared-piano groove in a band requires a lot of piano strength but it doesn’t sound loud. Quite a paradox: using a lot of strength from the back, arms and fingers on one side [of the body], and play quite soft on the other side. But it’s worth it
Another problem is considering a set-list for a concert. You have to know in advance what pieces you’re going to play, especially if some of them require special preparation. The drawback is that it is impossible for me to play two particular pieces on the same set, as it takes too much time to preparing the second piece. So, when I write new material, I always have this in mind. It limits a repertoire, which is a pity, but it puts me in a concert situation when I write the piece, which is a good way to imagine music. On fully improvised gigs, I start with or without a basic preparation setup, and it can evolve in the playing.
I play what I call hyperpiano. In general this means I play the keys with one hand and the strings with the other using various tools. The tools I use include copper bars, brass Tibetan prayer bowls, plastic audiocassette boxes, marimba mallets, rubber blocks, wooden dowels and E-bows. I have experimented with many other objects over the years but found these few work best. Unlike, say, Harry Partch’s instruments, all my tools are inexpensive and readily available or easily made.
I play hyperpiano to expand my musical palette to include more pitches, timbres, envelopes and textures than are possible from the keyboard, making what I hope is a more natural music on my instrument.
My approach is closest to [George] Crumb’s. It differs from prepared piano in that I affix nothing to the strings before I play. This lets me make unprepared sounds whenever I want anywhere on the keyboard.
There are many ways to excite a string including stop, slide, bow, pluck, strum and strike. These are common terms, but just to be clear: to stop is to press on, to slide is to move along, to bow is to move across, to pluck is to pull and release, to strum is to stroke multiple strings and to strike is to hit. Without a fretboard, a piano string cannot be stopped completely. The harder the material of the tool I use and/or the harder I press, the closer to a complete stop I can get.
When a string is stopped along its primary suspended part and excited, complementary partials are produced, whose frequencies in relation to the fundamental are the reciprocals of the fractions of string length on either side of the stop point. For example, stopping a string at 1/3 or 2/3 its length produces, among others, two pitches equal to 3/1 and 3/2 the fundamental—the 12th or third harmonic and the fifth.
Sliding a tool along an excited string makes the complementary partials slide in contrary motion, on the lengthening side toward the fundamental and on the shortening side toward the inaudible range.
Bowing a tool or moving it across the strings has some attractive attributes. One is the ability to produce sounds with long attack, sustain and decay envelopes, which cannot be done at the keyboard. Another is the ability to produce clusters of such sounds. Unlike violin strings, a piano string lie in one plane, so bowing excites as many strings as the tool is long.
Much as violinists vary their sound by bowing over the fingerboard, on the bridge, with the wood and so on, I vary my sound by which tool I use, where and how I use it, the area I apply, the amount of pressure I use, the angle I use and so on.
I use the copper bars to stop, slide, bow, pluck, strum and strike the strings; the brass bowls to stop, slide and strike; the cassette boxes to stop, slide bow and strike; the butts of marimba mallets to slide and the heads to strike; the blocks and dowels to stop, bow and slide; and the E-bows to excite a string by generating a magnetic field around it.
Sometimes I use more than one tool at once. For example, a bar inside a bowl, one bowl inside another, sliding a bar on a string excited by an E-bow, plucking with one bar and bowing or sliding with another. With the mallet butts and cassette boxes I can slide slowly enough to make a sustain instead of a glissando.
I like to match and mismatch altered and unaltered piano sounds. For example, I can tune and detune an interval by bending one or both pitches with a bar or bowl. I can narrow and even invert the pitches of a keyboard pattern by rotating a bar on its strings. For example, if I stop CDE at the center nodes C’D’E’—which requires putting the bar parallel to the bridge because the strings of E are shorter than those of C—and then rotate the bar counterclockwise until it’s perpendicular to the bridge, I hear E’D’C’ while playing CDE. If I play a key and then stop its string(s) short of the center node I hear one set of partials. Then if I play the same key again with its string stopped in the same place I hear a second set. The first set comes from the longer fraction of string beyond the stop point and the second from the shorter fraction struck by the hammer.
Inside the Piano: A Selected Discography
Music For Three Rivers; solo (Victo CD050)
Navigations; with Ensemble. (Acta 12)
The First Two Gigs (2000); with John Butcher, Rhodri Davies and John Edwards (Emanem 4063)
Paintings; with Guillaume Orti, Joe Carver and Steve Argüelles (Deux Z ZZ 84109)
Nancali; with Francois Houle (Songlines 1519-2)
Pursuit; with Michael Moore, François Houle, Jean-Jacques Avenel and Steve Argüelles (Songlines 1529-2)
Hyperpiano; solo (Mon$ey Music 001)
Duologues; with Mark Dresser (Victo CD 73)
Aquifer; with Mark Dresser and Matthias Ziegler (Cryptogramophone CG 111)
Piano Music; Henry Cowell, pianist (Smithsonian/ Folkways SF 40801)
Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano; Joshua Pierce, pianist (Wergo WER 60156-50)
Gnomic Variations/Processional/Ancient Voices of Children; Fuat Kent, pianist (Collegno WWE 1CD31876)
Minerva’s Web/Tears of Niobe; The Colorado College New Music Ensemble (New Albion NA026 CD)
Un Croix dans L’Ocean; solo (Victo CD031)
Originally published in April 2002