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Piano String Theories

Three of today’s exploratory keyboard masters offer a crash course in prepared piano

Benoit Delbecq
Sylvie Courvoisier

There’s an inherent playfulness to utilizing extended techniques on the acoustic piano. Getting your hands inside the instrument, sticking items on or in between its wires, or drumming the sides of the piano are approaches that avant-garde composers and performers share with mischievous children.

It’s not surprising, then, that many pianists don’t wait until their first encounter with John Cage or Henry Cowell to attempt such experimental approaches. Benoît Delbecq, now well known for integrating contemporary classical techniques and prepared piano into his jazz vocabulary, first started messing around under the hood of his great-grandmother’s piano at the age of 8. “My parents soundproofed a little room in the basement and put the piano down there,” Delbecq recalls. “I found a curved brush they used for radiators and realized I could play on the strings directly. So I asked my mom for a piece of felt and sewed it onto the brush.” While he’s long since formed a more rigorous conceptual basis for his preparations, Delbecq explains that maintaining that kind of childlike imagination is important for starting to develop mastery of extended techniques. “The discovery of a new sound is like having a new toy to play with,” he says.

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