Piano String Theories

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

Benoit Delbecq
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.

Over the years, Delbecq has used everything from that first radiator brush to saxophone reeds, tacks and twigs to alter the sound of his piano. According to Kris Davis, who began exploring extended techniques after studying with Delbecq in Paris, finding the proper materials to create the sounds you’re looking for is as important as every other aspect of forming your voice. “You experiment and figure out what works for you,” says Davis, who uses clothespins and hollowed-out erasers. “You can identify a person’s sound by their materials and the way that they’re used, so it can be a slippery slope to try to copy someone’s sounds and materials.”

Sylvie Courvoisier, a master of using extended techniques in the contexts of jazz and improvised music, said that in the beginning it’s difficult not to copy what you’ve heard before. “When you [start to] learn jazz, you play clichés. But I think you have to play clichés in order to find your own vocabulary,” she says. “You refine that and figure out what you want to play. Extended piano is just another possibility, another color. I like when it’s integrated with regular piano playing, like a horn player using multiphonics.”

Delbecq recommends starting out with cut-up pieces of rubber eraser placed between the strings, a cheap and harmless method of preparing the piano. “It will be random in the beginning,” he says, “but very soon you’ll find that if you put it at the halfway point of the string you’ll have a certain overtone quality. Paper is nice and can get you to harpsichord-like sounds, and if you want to have a snare effect you can have a little metal box with pencils or nails standing on felt. It’s endless.”

While each of these pianists is adept at playing solo, collaborating with other musicians is of course essential to jazz and presents its own challenges. One is the time and labor necessary to fully prepare a piano. Delbecq stresses the importance of planning a set list so as not to end up with long silent stretches while you toil inside the piano, or using simple items that can be quickly added or removed. Another hurdle is volume, since extended techniques often involve quieter sound levels. “The sound has the dynamic of chamber music, so if you play with a drummer you might not be heard at all. It’s absolutely pointless unless it’s a drummer who’s sensitive to the circulation of sound on the stage,” Delbecq says.

Experience is always an important teacher, and Courvoisier has learned the hard way what not to use on her instrument. “With my own piano, I made some mistakes where I hurt the piano,” she laments. “Never touch a damper; they’re super-fragile. If you use your hand, you shouldn’t leave it on the copper strings too long because you sweat and it makes marks on the strings.”

The damage can be more than aesthetic, as Delbecq stresses: “As long as you don’t distort the strings with metal that’s too hard for the copper strings, you can try many things. But I see young players use a hi-hat cymbal in the copper strings, and that is going to change the pressure on the soundboard and the tuning will go, or can actually cause damage. I sometimes use screws, but only when the piano is crap.”

Of course, there’s always the potential for embarrassment when placing objects inside a piano that were never designed to be there. “Things can fall out of the piano, and depending on what you’re going for, that can either be really cool or a disaster,” Davis says. “I use clothespins, and sometimes they pop out and you have to make something out of that.” While all the interviewees encouraged listening to both jazz and classical pianists who work with prepared piano, Courvoisier stressed hearing-and just as important, seeing-these techniques played live. “The main thing I can advise is to go to concerts, hear different pianos and be inspired by other musicians,” she says. “You can see what they’re doing, and you can ask questions. It’s the best way to learn.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.