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Cage Puts Needles, Screws, Forks And Bolts To “Prepare” Piano

“The function of art is not to communicate one’s personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operations.” – John Cage

“John Cage Extraodinaire – From Creating Surrealistic Music Using Needles, Screws And Bolts To Creatively Innovative Mushroom Soups!”


Working during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, John Cage honed his skills in the midst of the growing American avant garde. Neither a painter or a sculptor, Cage is best known for revolutionizing modern music through his incorporation of unconventional instrumentation and the idea of environmental music dictated by chance. His approach to composition was deeply influenced by Asian philosophies, focusing on the harmony that exists in nature, as well as elements of chance.

Cage is famous not only for his radical works, like 4’33” (1952), in which the ambient noise of the recital hall created the music, but also for his innovative collaborations with artists like Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. These partnerships helped break down the divisions between the various realms of art production, such as music, performance, painting, and dance, allowing for new interdisciplinary work to be produced. Cage’s influence ushered in groundbreaking stylistic developments key to contemporary art and paved the way for the postmodern artistic inquiries, which began in the late 1960s and further challenged the established definition of fine art.


Key Ideas

Cage discovered that chance was as important of a force governing a musical composition as the artist’s will, and allowed it to play a central role in all of his compositions. Although each piece has a basic, composed structure, the overall effect varied with each performance as different variables like the location and audience directly affected the sounds that were produced.
By breaking with the historically determined preconception that music was made by musicians using traditional instruments to perform structured and prearranged compositions, Cage opened up a new wealth of possibilities within modern art. His revolutionary performances ushered in an era of experimentation in all media and shifted the focus away from the artist’s inner psyche to the artist’s contemporary environment.
Cage focused his compositional career on the incorporation of unconventional elements such as kitchen gadgets, metal sheets, various common objects, and even silence into his works to change the way modern audiences listened to music and appreciated their surroundings.
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” – John Cage

Cage was surely an extremely eccentric person

John Cage and the Prepared Piano – What’s all this about things put inside a piano?

American avant-garde composer John Cage (1912–1992) started composing pieces for solo prepared piano around 1938–40. The majority of early works for this instrument were created to accompany dances by Cage’s various collaborators, most frequently Merce Cunningham.

In response to frequent criticisms of prepared piano, Cage cited numerous predecessors (such as Henry Cowell). In the liner notes for the very first recording of his most highly acclaimed work for prepared piano, Sonatas and Interludes, Cage wrote: “Composing for the prepared piano is not a criticism of the instrument. I’m only being practical.”

This part of my article presents a partial list of Cage’s works for prepared piano, with comments on each composition.

Sonata II perfromed by Boris Berman taken from the Naxos recording of John Cages Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.


In interviews conducted in 1974 and 1982, Cage specified that this piece was composed in 1938. However, the manuscript used for Edition Peters’ edition of Bacchanalespecified 1940 as the date, and this has been used by numerous scholars since.

The circumstances of the piece’s composition are much more clear: it was created for a choreography by the American dancer Syvilla Fort. Cage and Fort were both working at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington at the time.

The room where the dance was to be performed was not large enough to allow for a percussion ensemble, but had enough space for a grand piano. Cage decided to try placing various objects on the strings of the instrument in order to produce percussive sounds, inspired by Henry Cowell‘s experiments with extended piano techniques.

In 1982 Cage mentioned that the whole piece was completed in just three days. Twelve notes are prepared, mostly using weather strippings. In the score, in 11 cases out of 12, the performer is instructed to “determine position and size of mutes by experiment.”

John Cage in the midst of “preparing” his piano

Totem Ancestor – Here comes the screws…

Composed in 1942 for a dance by Merce Cunningham. Eleven notes are prepared, eight of them by screws. This is the only Cage-Cunningham collaboration from the 1940s for which original choreography has survived.

And the Earth Shall Bear Again

Composed in 1942 for a dance by Valerie Bettis. Ten individual notes are prepared, mostly with small screws, and a whole range from G1 to C3 is prepared using “two thicknesses of woolen material”. This material is placed between the strings in the following manner: over the first string, under the second, over the third, under the fourth, etc.


Composed in 1942 for a dance by Wilson Williams. Thirteen notes are prepared, all using screws or bolts.

In the Name of the Holocaust

Composed in late 1942 for a dance by Merce Cunningham. The title references World War II (like in the lost prepared piano work Lidice (see Lidice) from 1943). Piano preparation involves only screws or bolts. Various extended techniques are used, such as producing sound by plucking strings. The piece starts with quiet, muted tones and gradually becomes louder, climaxing in several successions of large tone clusters, executed using the entire length of the forearm.

John Cage (1912-1992): Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950/1951) — Giancarlo Simonacci, prepared piano — Orchestra V. Galilei diretta da Nicola Paszkowski

I. First part
II. Second part
III. Third part

Our Spring Will Come

Composed in 1943 for a dance by Pearl Primus. Piano preparation involves bamboo strips, as well as screws and nuts. The music and the dance were to be accompanied by a speaker reading a poem by Langston Hughes about the condition of Black people in the United States.

A Room

Composed in 1943, originally conceived as the third part of She Is Asleep (see below). May be performed with or without preparations, which involve 11 notes. Most are to be prepared using bolts, one new material is a penny. The music is written down on a single staff and follows the structure 4, 7, 2, 5, 4, 7, 2, 3, 5 (numbers denote the number of bars dedicated to a particular part of the section), repeated twice.

Tossed As It Is Untroubled

Composed in 1944 for a dance by Merce Cunningham, and dedicated to Valerie Bettis. Originally titled Meditation. Only eight notes are prepared, mostly with weather strippings. Roughly two thirds of the piece are written down on a single staff; the melodic line which makes up most of the piece uses just five tones, all prepared with weather strippings. The two heavily prepared notes are only used for a trill at the very end of the work.

A Valentine Out of Season

A suite of three pieces, composed in 1944. Choreographed by Merce Cunningham as Effusions avant l’heure / Games / Trio. The title references Cage’s separation from his wife Xenia, which happened in 1945.

Cage was interested in Far Eastern Culture

Prelude for Meditation

Composed in 1944. A very short work that only uses four tones.

Root of an Unfocus

Composed in 1944 for a dance by Merce Cunningham. A work in three sections: Section 1 contains seven parts, seven bars each; Section 2 juxtaposes bars in 4/4 and 3/4 metres; Section 3 divides 100 half notes into three groups of 23 and a coda. According to Cunningham, the subject of the work is fear: it describes “awareness of the unknown, struggle, and the final defeat”.

Spontaneous Earth

Composed in 1944 for a dance by Merce Cunningham.

The Unavailable Memory of

Composed in 1944 for a dance by Merce Cunningham. Written entirely on a single staff, primarily scored as a single melodic line.

Triple-Paced No. 2

This work, composed in 1944, is a revision of a 1943 piano piece titled Triple-Paced. The 1944 version was choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

The Perilous Night

Composed in 1944. This is Cage’s first large-scale work for prepared piano. Twenty-six notes are prepared with various materials. The piece contains six separate sections with different rhythmic structures. According to Cage, The Perilous Night expresses “the loneliness and terror that comes to one when love becomes unhappy”. All of the six movements of this work are untitled).

John Cage (1912-1992): Suite for Toy Piano (1948).


Margaret Leng Tan, Toy Piano.

Mysterious Adventure

Composed in 1945 for a dance by Merce Cunningham. This is another large-scale work with moderately complex piano preparation, involving 27 notes. It contains five sections.

Cage preparing his piano yet again

Daughters of the Lonesome Isle

Composed in 1945 for a dance by Jean Erdman. Contains nineteen sections. Thirty-nine notes are prepared.

Music for Marcel Duchamp

 Screenshots of the Dreams That Money Can Buysegment Cage wrote music for.

Composed in 1947 for a segment of Hans Richter‘s surrealist film Dreams That Money Can Buy. The film contains several segments designed by different artists, and Cage’s music was composed for a segment designed by Marcel Duchamp.

The segment—a dream one of the characters is having—is titled “Discs” and consists mostly of Duchamp’s rotoreliefs. These are designs painted on flat cardboard circles, which are to be spun on a phonographic turntable.The work was later choreographed by Merce Cunningham. The global structure is 11×11 (eleven sections of eleven bars each), the rhythmic proportion is 2, 1, 1, 3, 1, 2, 1.

Similarly to Tossed As It Is Untroubled and The Unavailable Memory of, the work mostly builds on a single melodic line, which uses notes muted by weather strippings. This piece is one of the first to explore the idea of silence systematically: empty bars are juxtaposed with melodic passages throughout the piece.

Sonatas and Interludes

Part of the table of preparations of Sonatas and Interludes.

Sonatas and Interludes

A cycle of 20 short works (16 sonatas and 4 interludes) composed in 1946–48. Dedicated to pianist Maro Ajemian. This is Cage’s most famous work for prepared piano, and also the most complex: piano preparation takes about 2–3 hours and involves forty-five notes, and the proportions governing the structure of individual pieces include fractions as well as natural numbers. 

Sonatas and Interludes was inspired by Cage’s interest in Indian philosophy and the Rasa aesthetic as explained in Ananda K. Coomaraswamy‘s writings. The pieces express the eight “permanent” emotions (the humorous, the wondrous, the erotic, the heroic, anger, fear, disgust and sorrow) and their common tendency toward tranquility.

Music for Works of Calder

Composed in 1950 for Herbert Matter‘s short film on sculptor Alexander Calder, Works of Calder. The idea of the film was suggested by Burgess Meredith, whom Calder met in spring 1948. The decision to ask Matter to direct was Calder’s: the two had worked with each other previously when Matter made photographs of Calder’s works.

John Cage on a toy piano

The 20-minute color film, produced and narrated by Meredith (narration by John Latouche) and photographed and directed by Matter, was completed in 1949, but since Matter insisted on asking Cage to compose the music, the team had to wait for about a year until Cage returned from Europe.

The piece consists of three sequences, two of which (numbers 1 and 3) are for prepared piano, and one (number 2) is for tape: Cage recorded the sounds of Calder’s studio while the sculptor was working —mobiles bumping into one another, etc.—then edited the resulting two-hour recording in order to produce the desired sequence of sounds.

Two Pastorales

Composed in November 1951 (first piece) and January 1952 (second piece). Both pastorales use chance operations applied using charts of layers, sounds, durations, etc. and the I Ching, similarly to Music of Changes. Because the number of layers was smaller than in the latter work (specifically, there are just two layers), the texture of Two Pastoralesis thinner, with long silences between notes.[32] Like in Music of Changes, the notation is proportional, one inch equals one quarter note. Extended techniques are used: strings are sometimes plucked by fingers or cymbal sticks, or muted by hand.

34’46.776″ For a Pianist

An excerpt from the score of 34’46.776″ For a Pianist.

Composed in 1954, this work is one of the so-called “time length” pieces, in which the title refers to the length of the work. The piece was composed using chance operations and written down in proportional graphic notation.

The rhythmic structure is 3, 7, 2, 5, 11. Piano preparation is defined only by specifying the strings to be prepared and the materials to be used, the actual choice of objects and their position on the strings is left to the performer. This piece was composed for David Tudor and is very difficult to play; its companion piece, 31’57.9864″ For a Pianist, shares the same techniques but is much easier. Both works may be performed solo or together with other “time length” compositions.

31’57.9864″ For a Pianist

Composed in 1954. A companion piece to 34’46.776″ For a Pianist, it uses similar notation and compositional techniques, but is much easier to play. The rhythmic structure is also identical to 34’46.776″.

(Video) Cage Time Pieces

Simultaneous performance of the three time-based, indeterminate solo works by John Cage: 31′ 57.9864” for a pianist (1954), performed by Steffen Schliermacher; 26′ 1.1499” for a string player (1955) performed by Karinna Fox; and and 27′ 10.554” for a percussionist(1956) performed by Scott Deal. Concert at the New England Conservatory Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice

This 32-minute performance is presented as a YouTube video in three consecutive, numbered parts. This is the first part.

Now that I have gone through a partial list of some of Cage’s more prominent works…some very odd yet innovative to say the least, let us end with something even more bizarre!

By October 1965 Cage was being courted by American Vogue for intelligence on mushrooms!!

John Cage, photographed by Bruce Davidson Photo: Courtesy of the Vogue Archive

In 1965 the journalist traveled to Stony Point, New York, to meet the avant-garde composer John Cage, who believed, “A work of art must never be a caress. If it no longer irritates, it no longer is art.” An epicurean to boot, Cage was as rebellious in the kitchen as he was on the piano, substituting homemade wild grape jelly (the recipe for which is below) for the traditional cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.

He served Lyon a salad of fresh watercress picked by a brook with mushroom “dogsup,” his version of ketchup. Obsessed with fungi, Cage, who won an Italian TV contest on mushrooms and revived the New York Mycological Society, explained the origins of his obsession, telling Lyon: “During the Depression, in California, I had no money. I was living in Carmel and around my shack grew mushrooms, I decided they were edible and lived on them.”


How About A Mushroom Recipe From John Cage?

John Cage’s Mushroom Dogsup

John Cage once read in a book that “catsup” is a thin liquid. So, as he likes it thick, he calls his recipe “dogsup.” This can be done with any kind of edible mushroom and must be kept at least a year before being used.

Ginger root
Bay leaf
Black pepper

Break the mushroom caps in small bits; slice the stem. Place in an earthenware jar with 1 tablespoon of salt for each pound of mushrooms. Let stand in a cool place for 3 days, stirring and mashing several times a day. On the third day, put over a low fire, in an enamel or Pyrex pan, until the juices flow freely. This takes about ½ hour. At that moment, a “catsup” is strained through a sieve; the “dogsup” is just mashed. Simmer for 20 more minutes. Measure the mash, add to each half pint: 1 ounce ginger root, chopped or grated; a blade of mace; a bay leaf, broken up; a pinch of cayenne; 1 ounce each of black pepper and allspice. Boil down to half the quantity. Add, for each half pint, a teaspoon of the best brandy. Bottle, cork, and seal.

John Cage’s Wild Grape Jelly

As given by John Cage:

“You get a bushel basket full of wild grapes from the woods. Then you discard the stems and put the grapes over low heat to extract the juices. Then you put everything in a pillowcase and strain it overnight. As little sugar as possible must be used, to keep the jelly tart. Measure the juice, add half its quantity of sugar, and boil down slowly until a little jelly dropped on a plate keeps the shape of a pearl. Put in jars and let it cool before sealing.”

Note: The jelly is very good with meat, and John Cage serves it with turkey on Thanksgiving, instead of cranberry.

Did Cage have any more secret recipes up his sleeve?. I bet he did but I guess we many never get to know or experience them. In 2012, John Cage left this world.

John Cage was one of the 20th Century’s most prominent experimental composers. Dabbling with electronics, tape loops, mushrooms and, most famously, complete silence, he changed the way art music was perceived. His compositions spanned a huge variety of media, theoretical ideas and quirky manners of playing conventional instruments.

John Cage: From Zero ( A Documentary)

We will never know what he would try next or experiment on or with but one thing is for sure…he certainly opened out eyes and ears to a whole new concept of sound, in ways we would have never known or perhaps ever dared to embark on.

Some call him weird and definitely out of this world….I’d rather refer to him as a pure genius who crossed the line. Take that which ever way you like!

“In words, as in music, Cage still opens our ears and minds.”

As one gentlemen put it…

“For those who think Cage a charlatan, it is important to see that the irreverence he expressed toward music and art is balanced by a complete reverence for what we might call the spirit of the things of this world. It may take a great composer to offer grand and colorful gestures of novel sonic organization, but Cage, in applying such intensity to the curious effects of water in a conch shell, or to sounds of a cactus meeting a feather, is his own specie of greatness. If we think he is placing these sounds on the same pedestal we place the composers of the great colorful gesture, we are likely to regard him as a charlatan. But he is not placing them on a pedestal. The sounds are standing on their own”

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