Playing On The Strings

Playing On The Strings

Recently, I was asked to present a lecture/recital that I have done over the years entitled, “Playing and Teaching the Music of Our Time.” This is essentially a primer for music teachers to introduce them to the style and repertoire of living composers, while offering resources that will help them access new music and choose appropriate pieces for students of different playing abilities. I provide an historical overview of different contemporary styles, and demonstrate how to play a variety of “extended keyboard” techniques—playing tone clusters with your forearm and an octave “cluster bar”, plucking harmonics on the inside of the piano, inserting objects into the instrument to make it sound like a gamelan, etc.

This is informative for teachers because most of them spend the majority of their time training students to play traditional piano pieces, leaving “new music” as little more than an afterthought to the well-established recital or competition program. Students are often not required to play anything more modern than Bartók in many music competitions, so establishing new music as central to the repertoire requires some thought and experience. As with most things, if you’ve never done this before, then it’s just as easy to rely upon what you already know. There are plenty of new pieces that don’t require any extended techniques, and the fact that a piece of music does or doesn’t use them is not what makes it good or bad anyway. Still, I think it’s important for pianists to understand the full range of the piano’s possibilities, and it’s necessary for teachers to have as many resources as possible to further the art form. I do this every year for my university students, and it tends to open them up as both performers and composers. It’s easy to teach the overtone system if you simply open the lid of the piano and demonstrate partials on the strings. The piano has the fullest range of sound of any instrument, so understanding those possibilities expands both the ear and imagination.

“Piano Cat” music stand designed by Peter Sumner.

While I was invited to share this knowledge during my recent lecture/recital, I was told that I couldn’t touch the inside of the piano, or insert any objects into the instrument. I could discuss contemporary music, but the organization wanted to make sure that I didn’t harm the piano in any way. (Apparently, in the previous year such maneuvers had resulted in “blood on the keys.”) This mandate was a stipulation of the piano company that provided the instruments for the convention, and while many of the organizers thought it was ridiculous, some of the board members agreed with the policy. After all, no one wanted to see blood on the keys again. In order to present the recital, I was given special permission from the president of the organization, so long as the convention piano technician agreed and was in attendance. To compromise, I promised to demonstrate how to play on the strings, but agreed not to “prepare” the piano with any foreign objects. In addition, I offered to introduce a new music stand that had been built for me and was specifically designed so I could read music while playing on the inside of the piano. The concert went off without a hitch, and, as is usually the case when I play on the inside of the instrument, audience members gathered around the piano afterwards to see exactly how it was done. The piano technician reassured skeptics that touching the strings did not harm the piano, and I validated that there was no blood on the keys, or the strings.

Is anyone still writing music for the inside of the piano? And, if so, have you met with any resistance? If this music has been part of the contemporary repertoire since the time of John Cage, then why do so few pianists know how to do it? Why are teachers not learning to teach these “extended techniques”, and why is the standard repertoire so slow to reflect these changes? I am happy to continue presenting my lecture/recital, but imagine that it will eventually become outdated, and perhaps even unnecessary. I’ve yet to see that happen, but I am ever hopeful.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

56 thoughts on “Playing On The Strings

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Not a lot inside the piano, but a few — certainlyl some various strums and felt mallet rolls in earlier performance pieces.

    The opening section of a piano piece from 1989 asks for the instrument to be played with wooden or delrin strikers in cimbalom style, and failing that option (the pianist’s vision was too poor to do it) for paper to be threaded through the strings to emulate the sound a little bit. (“Csardas” was issued on the recording “Alive and Well” by Michael Arnowitt.)

    There were no issues with the presenters in any of the above.

    Two pieces from last year asked for, respectively, ping-pong balls (“Sequenza Nova”) and jingle bells (“Glistening Fury”) to be added successively to the piano innards as the piece was being played. The one with ping-pong balls is not a played piano, but one with the pedal held down and a French horn played into it. It is scheduled for premiere for this fall, and no problems are anticipated; the other has no date yet.

    And I am working now on a commission for voice and piano where the singer has asked for a prepared instrument in the Cage tradition. Since this will be premiered in New York, I don’t expect a problem with the venue.


  2. crkasprzyk

    I have an older work that had an invented device (gently) simultaneously push down all the C’s, E’s, and G’s on the piano. It was the CEG (keg); there’s your (bad) pun of the day. This with the sostenuto pedal, provided some interesting results (without touching the strings). I didn’t experience as much resistance with this (obviously) compared to the typical use of machine screws (a la Arvo Pärt).

    My experience has found that each aspiring musician (and in turn, the teacher) picks repertoire to fit his or her career path. A (young) concerto-bound soloist typically will not see the need for performing something more recent. Perhaps the solution is to provide a need for such music; show how playing this music will be part of an (important part of a) career path. Not a black and white situation…just some thoughts.

  3. crkasprzyk

    First post…I’ll be sure to edit those parentheticals’ next time. Hope my points were conveyed.

  4. colin holter

    My experience has been that you usually have to settle for the “B” piano if you want to prepare it. Way to make us feel like second-class citizens, managers.

  5. philmusic

    So Ms. Stienway, how do you feel about be prepared?

    Thats the irony of it all –no one tells me a thing! They just go ahead and rearrange my insides whether I like it or not!. Sometimes they don’t even bother to repolish my case!

    But Ms. Stienway–

    Oh please, my friends call Ms. 88

    Well, Ms. 88 then, there are so many expressive possibilities that can only be revealed through-how shall I say this-through alternative manipulations of your strings -say with a plectrum or fingers and the introduction of foreign objects into them.

    Well, I do like foreigners, but don’t get me started on that Betty Bechstein. It’s just, well, you see, it tickles!. There, I said it! You see its a little bit embarrassing for me. As you know I am sn experienced performer. Well, besides that — no problem.

    So Ms. 88, —

    I remember dear Mr. Cage. He was so gentile and polite. Yet my poor cousin Paula was burned alive and then unceremoniously thrown from a hovering helicopter! Their ought to be a law! The cads!!

    So Ms. 88, —

    Well I love composers dearly you know–always have. I only ask that what you need do can be undone.

    Thank you Ms. 88.

    Phil Fried, ok–I made it all up!

  6. teresa

    Well… I have to say that while watching someone destroy a worthless spinet piano is indeed gratifying….. that’s not exactly the kind of piece I can take on tour. Thanks for the tip though. It’s amazing what one can find on YouTube : )


  7. William Osborne

    Bacl in the 60s Annea Lockwood made a piece out of burning a piano. I read about it in Source Magazine. The idea of making music by destroying pianos seems to have caught on. Click the link below to see Japanese jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita, in fireproof gear, playing a piano, which was set ablaze for his performance:

    And here is a blog with many photos by some students who set a piano on fire:

    What seemed revolutionary in the 60s comes across in the Beavis & Butthead vein when done forty years later– or so comments Roger Bourland. He reminds us also of the Beatles pushing a piano out of a tree in the video for Strawberry Fields Forever.

    Which all reminds me of Charles Wourinin’s question: “How do you make a revolution when the generation before said anything goes?” After a point, destroying pianos gets a bit arty.

    William Osborne

  8. teresa

    Yes, Annea Lockwood’s Burning Piano is now something I teach students in music history class…. long, long, time ago.

    Does anyone have a piano stand like the one in the picture? (it moves from side to side, and comes apart for travel, BTW) One of the challenges of extending the keyboard is the ability to play what is written while reaching inside the instrument. The traditional Steinway piano stand tends to get in the way, and memorizing every piece is not always possible. I would be curious to know what resources are out there?


  9. philmusic

    “..Well… I have to say that while watching someone destroy a worthless spinet piano is indeed gratifying….. ”

    So thats how it is?

    A cracked sound board, lose pins, some rusty strings, a broken pedal, and its off to the garbage heap!

    Oh the pianity!

    Phil Fried, I swear she told me!

  10. Rob Deemer

    Festival in February
    The student new music society (Ethos) I work with at SUNY-Fredonia is going to be hosting a month-long festival in February of 2009 featuring new music for the piano and this article strikes at the heart of the difficulty in putting such a festival together. Too many technicians have had bad experiences with attempts to work inside the piano to allow such an endeavor – to be honest, the only way we were able to pull it off was to send a video of our headliners (Stephen Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble) to our technician…she exclaimed “That was so COOL! I guess it’d be okay…” Whew.

    In addition to Scott’s ensemble, Michelle Schumann’s coming up from Austin to lecture on prepared piano and perform Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, pianst/composer duos Amy Briggs Dissanayake with David Rakowski and Kathy Supove with Randall Woolf will ply their trades and pianist & composer Beata Moon will be performing her own work. A strong festival which almost wasn’t!

  11. Lisa X

    “After a point, destroying pianos gets a bit arty.”

    William, I’d like to completely agree with you but maybe destroying pianos is becoming part of some canon and shouldn’t be judged only by it’s most trite exterior. Piano smashing is slowly becoming conventional. You don’t dismiss a string quartet just because it is an ordinary configuration.

    Try the same video with your eyes closed. Sounds good!

  12. mdwcomposer

    Does anyone have a piano stand like the one in the picture?

    Not like the one in the picture, but I once saw a custom-made thing that stood on the floor (the idea was that you completely remove the desk). It was more or less a typical music stand, but instead of the “desk” part sitting on top. there was a long (counterweighted) extension arm at 90 degrees, with the desk on top of that. Sort of like:


    It was pretty flexible in its placement, and I think it came apart for transport.

       – Mark Winges

  13. mdwcomposer

    On the other hand, some bow makers and string players complain about damage done by col legno, and that’s been around since the 19th century.

       – Mark Winges

  14. philmusic

    Practically speaking I use 3 different bows in my solo string bass performances. For col legno–the beater bow!

    Anyway, I have seen a number of permanent modifications, or applications, of vintage instruments to their ruin. Though I understand this from a political stand point, it seems that a cheaper substitute works quite well.

    Phil Fried,

  15. William Osborne

    “Lisa”, your comment about the destruction of pianos becoming part of the canon is as thought provoking as it is hilarious. Hmm.

    There is a wonderful interview with Annea that Frank made for NMBx in 2004. See:

    She created a series of works called “Piano Transplants” which involved not only burning pianos, but also burying them, sinking them in ponds, and placing them in gardens.

    The works seem to say something about the transitory nature of music and art, and ultimately about the transitory nature of our own being. The photos of the works have become even more evocative because they are becoming rather old. We see a grand piano in a garden that looks like it is being overgrown with vines, but there is also a deep irony because we see Annea back in the 60s as a young, lithe, (and very beautiful!) woman. We look at the piano and forget it is not the only thing burning, or sinking in the pond, or being over-grown with vines….

    In the interview, Franks says he would like to hear the tape of the piano burning. Annea wonders if the tape is still even playable….

    William Osborne

  16. rtanaka

    The whole destroying instruments thing has been done all over, including rock stars who’d smash their guitars on stage. They also did the burning piano thing at school while I was there. Most of the time it’s pretty much what you’d expect it would look/sound like.

    I’ve played at gigs where half the keys are missing and out of tune, and I had to make the best of it. They simply had no money to buy a new one. When I see those types of pieces, the first thing I think is — hmm, why not fix it up and donate it somewhere? With a little time and effort, most pianos can actually be refurbished to an acceptable level.

    Maybe those works have some good intentions behind them (some kind of anti-capitalist sentiment, I’m guessing), but in many cases it simply becomes a showcase of wealth by the upper-classes — see, we have so much money that we can afford to do such things. Why not do something creative with it instead?

  17. William Osborne

    In 1997 my wife and I had a performance in NYC. It was part of the protests against the Vienna Philharmonic and took place in CAMI Hall across the street from Carnegie at the same time as the orchestra was performing. I needed to buy two speakers as part of a plan to own my own sound system which I would store in the States for when we had concerts there. I wanted two Peavey SP2s and the only store that had them in stock was in a very bad area of the South Bronx.

    While I was in the store waiting to pay a African-American boy about 11 years old came in and intensely studied a violin behind a glass case near the cash register. The owner practically chased him out of the store. He said the kid came in every day and looked at the violin but that he did not have the money to buy it. It was a cheap, 3/4 size plywood thing made in China that cost about a hundred dollars. I remember how adoringly the kid looked at the instrument and it still makes me feel sad. I sometimes think about how it would have been to simply have bought the thing for him right on the spot, but that would probably not have been wise. He would have needed music lessons, a place at home to practice, and some family support. And NYC isn’t the greatest place for anonymous strangers to buy kids gifts.

    The memory also comes to mind when I think of burning pianos. There are a lot of kids who could use a piano of just about any sort. For that matter, I also think of all the horrible pianos I have had.

    On the other hand, burning an old piano probably isn’t such a big loss when one considers that a major orchestra costs about 80 million a year, or a major opera house about 200 million. Orchestras and opera houses usually aren’t very creative, and in the States they clearly cater to a wealthy elite. As artistic materials and costs go, old pianos are not very expensive, and Annea’s pieces were rather influential and strongly expressed the anti-elitist spirit of the time.

    And if we are going to think in terms of loss, what does an artistic life cost? Many might suggest, Ryan, that there are probably a lot of things you could be doing that are more “useful” than being a composer, especially in economic terms. Would you not contribute more to society being a school teacher? Or maybe a scientist, since your background is technical? What is the loss of an old piano compared to the “wasted” life of a marginalized artist? Shall they not just take us out an burn us if we do not do something “useful”?

    We can make the obvious comments about the wastefulness of destroying an old instrument, but the economic arguments open many more thoughts than are comfortable to consider. When even artists have no or little value, we can are clearly inclined to think of their work as also valueless, and even a waste.

    Amyway, these thoughts and this discussion illustrate that Annea’s piece is still at work….

    William Osborne

  18. sarahcahill

    Hi Teresa- Julie Steinberg has a special stand she’s been using for many years, which I think attaches to the piano lid so that she’s free to reach into the strings. Each piece of music is different, of course, and sometimes you can just lay the music out flat against the pegs, and sometimes you have to memorize. There’s an interesting performance tradition for interior piano, with David Burge’s book and others, but I find it’s helpful just to call Margaret Leng Tan or Julie Steinberg or Joe Kubera on the phone with questions. I think the general rule is not to rub the strings with anything harder than the strings themselves, so George Crumb using the chisel in Vox Balaenae is sort of disturbing. And of course the oil from our fingers is not that good for the strings, so presenters have good reason to be nervous about their Hamburg Steinways. Thanks for your article!

  19. rtanaka

    Since art is, in many ways, a functionless commodity, I’m not against the idea of using (or in some cases, destroying) materials in order to prove a point. But what’s actually being said here? After some several hundred years of development, if “people die and that is sad” is the best the classical canon can come up with, we’re in deep trouble. Talk about pointing out the obvious!

    All I really see in that sort of thing is people being angry and letting off some steam on an hapless object. Course you could get the same representational effect if you just used a drawing of a piano and destroyed that instead. Much cheaper, and the point being made is pretty much the same. (Tear it all down!) But they choose not to, because it’s more about showcasing than anything else, really. Sorry but I can’t help but see it as a bit juvenile.

  20. teresa

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for your comments. I don’t know the stand that Julie uses….. (would love to see it) but it is true that everyone comes up with their own solutions. Each performance situation often calls for a specific remedy….

    As regards Vox Balanae…. I use the edge of a shot glass to get the same effect. It’s less invasive than a glass chisel (I think this is far too heavy), and Crumb approves. I think everyone has their own method for playing on the strings, and I believe the technicians (and other series’ reps) will come around eventually. I don’t think any of us want to harm the piano, and most of us are interested in creating beautiful sound. Who could argue with that?


  21. William Osborne

    Whew! If even skin oil on strings becomes a problem, God forbid that the pianist sneeze while performing. They’d have to refurbish the entire instrument! Perhaps we should only approaching those Hamburg Steinways with surgical gloves and masks. As for those Bösendorfers, let’s lock them in hermetically sealed glass cases and just stare at them. … Sorry, just being a smart alec.

    There are two levels to the conversation here, one from pianists involved with the practicalities of performance, and one from composers concerned with broader philosophical, aesthetic, and historical issues.

    Perhaps we can bring them together. I wonder if Teresa, Sarah (and Josephine if she is around) might have some perspectives on how piano music has evolved over the last 40 years. Through composers like Crumb and Curtis-Smith (and the early Cage), inside-the-piano music was quite the rage during the 60s and 70s, but by the 80s its seems that much of the music had moved back to the keys, such as with the Etudes of Ligeti and Rakowski. Even Curtis-Smith’s more recent work seem to be mostly on the keys. Has this been a general pattern? Has inside-the-piano music faded, and if so, why?

    In a somewhat less related vein, I am also very curious about how advances with digital pianos (as dedicated instruments and as used in samplers and in the form of Yamaha’s midi pianos) are regarded by the new music community. These instruments still have many limitations, but they are getting better and better and I have found that they offer some very useful benefits, ranging from possibilities for micro-tuning to the study of new kinds of musical figures that cannot be played by humans to obvious practicalities in recording one’s music especially when working in a multi-media environment. I know that pianists would almost certainly look at these instruments askance, but I would still find your thoughts and observations very interesting.

    (You know, I also find it interesting that so few women composers participate here, but that all three pianists who frequent these pages are women. I wonder why.)

    William Osborne

  22. philmusic

    “…There are two levels to the conversation here, one from pianists involved with the practicalities of performance, and one from composers concerned with broader philosophical, aesthetic, and historical issues…”

    Dear me. I thought I was blogging about musical issues.

    Phil Fried, Ms. 88 withholds comment!

  23. jchang4

    My experience with new music for piano is not so extensive, but I don’t know that inside-the-piano music has completely died out, because about a year ago I was asked to play a new piece for piano trio that involved some strumming.

    As for electric keyboards, I’m actually all for them. I think we should continue to develop that instrument, and even continue to develop the acoustic piano! Because both instruments are far from “perfection.”

    I think my only major gripe with the electric keyboard is the synthetic feel of the keys (sound in some keyboards is actually pretty good). Sure, Casio has done wonders with it’s graded weighting, but there is still definitely something very lacking in the touch. I can literally feel the action moving when I play my acoustic, which is not something that weighting in the electric keys is going to be able to simulate.

    On the other hand, why is it so important to recreate this heavy action? Has not the heaviness of the acoustic piano keys created technical difficulties that in themselves are not necessarily desirable? Organ and early keyboard instruments are quite light to the touch and make playing (fast passages especially) much more efficient.

    And the only reason why this pianist (if you can even call me that anymore) is commenting on these pages is probably because I’m procrastinating :) j/k You guys are great.. I’ve learned quite a bit from following these pages.

  24. jchang4

    I was asked to play a new piece for piano trio that involved some strumming.

    I just remembered that there were some harmonics also.

  25. rtanaka

    Has inside-the-piano music faded, and if so, why?

    There was a point when I was inspired by the possibility of doing things inside the piano and would collect all kinds of garbage and trinkets to stick inside. (I was lucky enough to have places where they were generally open to doing those kinds of things.) Maybe you might have to tune it more often, but with enough care piano-preparations can be done without any kind of long term damage. But some people seem to freak out at the very idea because they think you’re damaging the equipment while doing so. Seems pretty logical that such practices would fade during the 80s Reagan eras.

    The piano is a very orderly, and cleanly laid-out instrument. It goes from the lows to the highs, structured very logically and evenly for the pianist’s ease. If there’s one thing that Cage disliked, it was that type of order that probably reminded him of the hegemony of Western society — he wanted to add color and variation to an instrument which would otherwise be an homogeneous sound. It’s also in line with his ideas about rebelling against pitch structures and introducing noise as a musical concept into the classical realm. Since preparations often changes the resultant sound away from its notation, it results in that type of dissociation that he’s known for as well.

    Like a lot of other people, I’ve turned back to using pitches mostly because I’ve found a new-found appreciation for functional harmony. It’s not so much that I approve of the stratifications but that it’s a way to acknowledge that that’s just the way things are and we’re going to have to work with it for the time being. Nowadays I use preparations for the bottom 3rd of the piano mostly, as a make-shift drum-kit that can provide rhythms on the bottom while the top can still provide pitched materials. The idea is to depict what exists on the bottom as having the most chaos — the same thing can be said about the orchestra, where as you go further back into the rows, you can see a sort of stratification of class happening before your very eyes.

  26. COConnor

    Teresa, Thanks for the article… I never imagined my “blood on the keys” story would get so much mileage! That ordeal was actually four years ago and resulted in the piano corporation enforcing its restrictions. But, I am happy to report that a little education and exposure has calmed many people and the restrictions have been eased. I am certain your sensitive and respectful presentation along with some lobbying by pianists helped our cause.

    I think the “blood” came from the adjacent hotel kitchen staff after asking them to be quiet and not from the Crumb afterall! It’s still a mystery!

    The music stand is very cool, compact and flexible … best of luck with it.

  27. rtanaka

    In so far as the orchestra goes, the pianists are sort of the weirdos sitting off to the side, sitting in isolation, doing crazy things like putting stuff into their instruments and being kind of neurotic by talking to themselves with their complex counterpoint.

    I have to say that I fit that stereotype pretty perfectly, though.

  28. jchang4

    Hello Teresa!
    Wait a minute… I think I was at this lecture/recital that you refer to! Your handout charting various pieces/books is really fantastic! Susan mentioned in her lecture, also, that she was not to touch the strings… [but she did so anyway :) ]

  29. philmusic

    Blood!!! Well its flattering that one would chose to suffer for my sake.

    Anyway, many times the touch of the fingers is a most welcome relief from my very own hammers. Yet Moma, she was a square, always told us to avoid chiselers.

    As told to Phil Fried-I swear it!

  30. Peter Sumner

    I hope these comments are helpful…..

    It is true that the acids in our skin will have a corrosive effect on music wire. Surgical gloves is taking things too far :-) but will give an interesting effect. By simply remembering to wipe the strings with a soft cloth, the player will reduce any risk.
    When playing inside, the main area for players to avoid is the dampers, as a misaligned damper will plague any performance.

    If you go to Steinway and Sons web site and click on the ‘visit the Steinway video library’ you will see Margaret Leng Tang using a CD on the strings to great effect. Teresa uses a shot glass….no problem there, so long as it’s empty.
    I may have a problem with rusty nails and articles touching the soundboard…but I would ask all the composers and pianists out there to remember that the worm turns slowly in the piano industry and with technicians in particular.

    As far as the .Piano Cat’ music stand is concerned, I think everyone should get one……

    Peter Sumner
    Modern era Steinway and Sons specialist
    San Francisco Bay Area

  31. sarahcahill

    women inside the piano
    Interesting point that William Osborne raised about women pianists writing comments here, but not women composers. In my experience, many of the really stunning and most visceral recent pieces for interior piano have been composed by women. For Annea Lockwood’s Ear-Walking Woman, you weave dimes between the strings, and use superball mallets, wooden moth balls, a Tibetan bell bowl, a glass, and other implements on the strings. Lois V Vierk’s beautiful To Stare Astonished at the Sea summons up a gorgeous seascape, strumming and plucking the strings with guitar picks (here I find that metal ones work best, but you risk scratching the strings with them). Interesting also that these two pieces were written for women pianists, Jennifer Hymer and Margaret Leng Tan, respectively. Let’s encourage composers to keep exploring this fascinating territory.

  32. teresa

    I guess I am not convinced that gender necessarily has anything to do with those compositions, or the pianists who are playing them…. except perhaps, for coincidence? Most of George Crumb’s beautiful piano music was written for men (David Burge, Lambert Orkis, etc.) and yet, they are some of my favorite pieces.

    Perhaps women are more experimental? Or perhaps greater risk takers? Perhaps men are more quick to respond? I don’t think there is enough research on this site to prove either point of view, except as speculation. I do agree that years of tradition and social conditioning can be hard to change. And yes, please, let’s keep exploring this fascinating territory–together.


  33. William Osborne

    Teresa, I think the male performers of Crumb’s music could be defined by generational differences. Most of his big paino works were completed during the 60s and 70s. The women’s movement in music did not really gain traction until the 80s. I haven’t done the research to prove it, but we might find that women pianists performing new music only became more common after Crumb had completed most of his works and had already established his professional relationships.

    BTW, I studied with Crumb for several years. He had two pianos, an old junker grand of undetermined origins and a beautiful Steinway 9 footer. The old piano was in a tiny, almost windowless room where he composed, and the Steinway in a huge studio he had added to his house. He composed on the old junker. When I would go for my lessons I could expect to find about everything from chain saws to old spare tires sitting inside that piano. Well, I exaggerate a bit, but it was an instrument he didn’t mind working over, and which produced a lot of incredible piano music. (And this is to say nothing of the incredible howls, moans, caterwails, and shrieks that his wife reported coming from the room as he tried out the vocal parts of his music. How I would have loved to hear them.)

    I wonder if Joshephine’s acceptance of digital pianos might also be generational. I am slowly learning to accept their sound. I have written a lot of works lately specifically for digital piano (30 short works that add up to an hour, and five songs with digital piano accompaniment), but I still find the keyboards useless. I just clunk out the notes and then nuance them with a sequencer.

    The digital piano in the Kontakt software sampler uses about 80 megs of memory for a Steinway D. The patch even includes shorts samples for the key releases that give the sound of the dampers retouching the strings. I don’t mind the sound at all. That sampled Steinway D sounds a lot better than the old junky grands I have had to use all my life. If only a decent keyboard could be invented.

    There are so many small theaters where Abbie and I could do our Samuel Beckett settings (for her and piano) but they do not have good grand pianos. There is no substitute for a good Steinway, but a good digital keyboard might finally provide at least a workable solution for those small theaters, and many other types of venues new music folks have to use.

    William Osborne

  34. Peter Sumner

    Has anyone any experience of using the Mellotron…? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that it uses actual taped violin sounds and others on actual tape…about 8 seconds in duration…
    They could be still around, although battered and bruised…and might prove a worthy addition to the arsenal….you may need a truck…but there are always the folks carting the 5 octave marimbas around…they must know people who lift things.

  35. teresa


    Perhaps you are right about the generational differences for gender and performance…. but I believe that Crumb could have written those pieces for a female colleague, had she been teaching with him at the time (as was David Burge), don’t you? I guess we’d have to ask him. Of course, perhaps it is a statement of the times, that it was David who had the position at the University of Colorado, and not a woman, and that gave him close proximity to Crumb, who wrote for him, etc. It’s complicated isn’t it?

    I guess I just don’t like to assume that women are writing only for women, any more than the opposite (men are writing only for men). History, of course, is not on my side…. but I am interested in breaking down the stereotypes, not reinforcing them.

    I often feel the same sentiments when I am invited to play on music festivals that promote “women’s music” (why not just good music?) There’s a sort of “ghettoizing” that comes with that designation. I have rarely chosen to play a piece of music because it is written by a woman, and find that most of my colleagues feel similarly.

    However, it is a good discussion point. Perhaps I’ll have to write a “chatter” about this? : )


  36. sarahcahill

    Interesting comment, William, about women pianists not coming into their own until the 1980s. There’s a pretty incredible legacy, actually. There’s Lili Kraus working with Bartok; there’s Yvonne Loriod and Messiaen. The Arbiter label just came out with some fabulous recordings of Iren Marik, an early advocate of Messiaen and Bartok. Let’s not forget that some of John Cage’s most important interpreters were women, who recorded his work: Maro Ajemian, Greta Sultan, Jeanne Kirstein. By the way, Kirstein’s daughter is selling her mother’s piano, in case anyone is interested:
    “I have inherited my mother’s Steinway baby grand piano, into which she stuffed coins, weather stripping and other various craziness that was necessary for practising and performing John’s Music for Prepared Piano. I am loath to give it up, but I also can not afford to continue to have it transported to various locations as I move from place to place, so I am looking for a good home for it.”

  37. philmusic

    “..I am interested in breaking down the stereotypes, not reinforcing them…”

    I agree.

    Phil Fried

  38. William Osborne

    There is a 1960s promotional video for the Mellotron here:

    Warning: before playing this video you should probably remove your children from the room. I understand that the Defense Department under Donald Rumsfeld tried to purchase a large collection of Mellotrons for use in torture sessions.

    Seriously though, the instrument has gone back into production! It seems a number of rock musicians have a kind of nostalgic respect for it. It has become a sort of period music instrument among the pop elite.

    Thanks for the interesting information about the legacy of women pianists, Sarah. The piano has long been coded as a partially feminine instrument. (In Germany, the 100 mark bill even had Clara Schumann’s picture on it.) So it seems only natural that women have long been involved with new music for the instrument and have worked closely with name composers.

    To answer Teresa’s questions about women with whom Crumb might have worked, we would need to know who they were during the 60s and 70s. And if they had enough exposure that he would have known about them. It is an interesting question, but I simply do not know enough about the piano and pianists to answer. It is nice to have people here interested in the combined topics of new music, piano, and women in music who can answer these questions.

    I agree that concerts that feature only women can be counterproductive, though in some circumstances I think they might be useful. (There is an enormous amount of debate about this in the women-in-music community.) There are still the oddest imbalances, like in the discussion participants here, or that for a while the m/f ratio for issues bloggers was 6 to 0 (something that only changed in the last couple weeks.) It is also informative to go through the season programs of new music groups and note that women are still often strongly underrepresented. Imbalances in either direction are not the ideal. The changes that have evolved since the 70s are very encouraging. People like Annea and Pauline Oliveros were very much pioneers.

    William Osborne

  39. philmusic

    “but we might find that women pianists performing new music only became more common after Crumb

    The piano has long been coded as a partially feminine instrument. ”

    So uh Bill, I think its obvious that you don’t really care at all about your many conflicting statements -rather you just want to pull every bodies chain.

    Please do–I have a few more poems in me.

    Phil Fried

  40. William Osborne

    Phil, the apparent contradiction comes from the fact that the history is very complex. The piano was long coded as feminine because it was a parlor instrument cultured “ladies” were often expected to learn. It was far less common, however, for them to be allowed professional status as pianists even though many were very accomplished. For those interested, this history is thoroughly treated in Freia Hoffmann’s book Instrument Und Korper: Die Musizierende Frau in Der Burgerlichen Kultur, Insel Verlag 1991. Unfortunately, I do not think it has been translated into English.

    William Osborne

  41. jchang4

    Lamenting the imbalance in the female-to-male ratio on these pages is easily translatable to other areas of music where it is actually skewed the other way. I don’t know how many of you listened to those tracks I posted a few weeks back, but some interesting points were made regarding gender in the precollege music teaching sector. [“Women are saving music for the world…” etc.] I guess what I’m trying to say is: I don’t understand this fascination with gender as a determining factor in music. Why does gender matter? The fascination that people have when it comes to “women in music” (etc) is rather sexist. How come we don’t see a similar fascination with “men in precollege (music) teaching” ? Unfortunately, sexism is ingrained in our society.

    Also, I don’t think my acceptance of the electric piano is an attitude broadly shared by pianists of my generation. I’m just a very strange person. Don’t get me wrong: My pro-electric attitude in no way takes away from my pro-acoustic feelings. Perhaps I am simply much more critical of the acoustic piano’s flaws, which makes me see the pros of the electrics more clearly.

  42. William Osborne

    Josephine asks some worthwhile questions:

    I don’t understand this fascination with gender as a determining factor in music. Why does gender matter? The fascination that people have when it comes to “women in music” (etc) is rather sexist. How come we don’t see a similar fascination with “men in precollege (music) teaching” ? Unfortunately, sexism is ingrained in our society.

    Gender matters because it manifests itself in injustice. The injustices are statistically self-evident. I’m not sure the term would be fascination, but rather concern.

    Teaching school age children, for example, is indeed associated with women, and the field also carries less status and pay than being a professor. Women also share an undue burden in childrearing and this often prevents women from the full realization of their l human potential. (There is no natural law that says men shouldn’t be as involved in raising and teaching kids.)

    There might be even more abstract reasons why gender matters, and why people study it. We need to know what differences between men and women might exist in terms of cultural expression. This is extremely difficult because our perspectives are so strongly conditioned by stereotypes and essentialism. It is difficult to get to the truth about gender, and yet these are truths that would give us much greater knowledge of ourselves and a much deeper understanding of what it means to be a human.

    William Osborne

  43. sarahcahill

    I agree with William. Of course gender matters. Josephine, you talk about our interest with women in music as being “sexist,” but it’s quite the contrary. The conductors and performers who claim they just focus on “good music,” without regard to gender or race, are usually the ones who end up programming exclusively white male composers, because that’s what’s in front of them. That’s changing, but slowly. When we performers pay attention to gender, we seek out women composers to enrich our repertoire. We also notice that the 20th century’s great new music pianists included women, not just Tudor, Masselos, Kirkpatrick, and others. And when we hear Sara Laimon or Nurit Tilles play Ives’ First Sonata, we see them chipping away at stereotypes of women pianists and “masculine” composers. We can find these things interesting without making any gross generalizations. Does it matter that Rzewski wrote The People United for Ursula Oppens, and not a man? Maybe not, but it is very important to have these models of composer-performer relationships, and to respect them.

  44. jchang4

    Sorry to bring up the “S” word. I do agree with both your statements, though I think it cannot be denied that it is a truly fine line that we walk. Whenever we talk about gender or race with respect to anything, it’s difficult not to make it seem like we need to elevate these marginalized peoples as if they are somehow lesser. I do find it strange that we don’t see similar things with white men in areas where they are less present. It makes you question the value system from which these things are rated.

  45. philmusic

    So Sara:

    Are you saying that (gender) stereotypes are OK if they help promote a career?

    I know that the advertising industry would concur.

    Phil Fried

  46. sarahcahill

    Phil, how could you possibly imagine that I think stereotypes are okay as long as they promote a career? Where did you get that idea? And my name is Sarah, not Sara.

  47. philmusic

    Sorry about your name Sarah:

    Your words

    In my experience, many of the really stunning and most visceral recent pieces for interior piano have been composed by women.

    [Those.]. who claim they just focus on “good music,” without regard to gender or race, are usually the ones who end up programming exclusively white male composers..”

    Besides your first comment, you state that “good” music in this case is merely a “cover” for the status quo. Ok. This would also reflect a covert world where everything is in play, including stereotypes.

    I think?

    Phil Fried

  48. William Osborne

    Phil, the examples you list do not in anyway illustrate that Sarah believes in exploiting stereotypes for career purposes. In fact, they show just the opposite! Your comments are absurd, and I doubt she even needs to respond.

    Again, I find your thoughts very interesting and worthwhile, Josephine. There is often a danger of misguided and even bigoted patronization when attempts are made to solve problems caused by discrimination. A classical example is the housing projects created from around 1940 to 1970, with perhaps the worst errors made during the Great Society program under the Johnson administration. Poor racial “minorities” were clustered together in massive, dehumanizing apartment buildings with the inevitable result that the social ills of discrimination and its attendant poverty were concentrated and reinforced. Worse problems evolved than existed before the efforts were made. There was no attempt made toward integration, but rather a desire to hide away our social ills by stuffing them into huge buildings where they would presumably be out of sight.

    The mistakes were made through half-hearted or misguided efforts, but at the same time, the errors were speciously exploited by bigoted rightwingers who had racist hidden agendas from the outset. Their specious arguments have left us with a legacy of confusion to this day. The challenge becomes sorting out legitimate criticism of social programs from attacks that are merely disguised, conscious or unconscious forms of bigotry.

    Current housing programs are more effective. People are often given vouchers and can find an apartment wherever they like. Many cities even gives the owners of buildings financial incentives if they reserve a portion of their units for low income tenants.

    The problems women in music face are not nearly as massive or complex, but it is still possible that errors have been made. It is important to ask critics if they can provide significant, concrete, documented examples of mistakes, along with suggestions for approaches that would be better. This approach helps sort out the specious arguments of bigots and ideologues that have created so much confusion and insecurity, from legitimate ideas for improved solutions.

    William Osborne

  49. sarahcahill

    Thanks for your thoughts, William. Obviously this is a huge subject which goes way beyond music (just ask Hillary Clinton). Phil, I still don’t quite follow your line of reasoning, but I can tell you that when Kent Nagano was conducting the Berkeley Symphony here, I admired his programming immensely (Varese, Stockhausen, Takemitsu, Zappa, Boulez), but asked him why he wasn’t presenting any women composers. He replied that he didn’t think in terms of men and women, he just programmed music he considered worthwhile. But for many years, it was all men.

    Several years ago, the Women’s Philharmonic created a list of orchestral works by women composers, so that music directors could be more informed in their choices. Josephine might question the very existence of a Women’s Philharmonic- why limit an orchestra to women, performing only women composers?- but the very fact that it provided this valuable resource, for education and information, made the world that much better.

    We’re getting into territory already covered recently by Lisa Hirsch in her excellent column on women composers in these pages. Looking forward to Teresa’s next column…

  50. philmusic

    Now that you mention it I go a long, a very long, way back with JoAnn Falletta.

    So, to quote Emily Letella:

    Never mind!

    Phil Fried

  51. rtanaka

    It might be interesting to make a note of the role that industrialization played in various women’s rights movements throughout history — women’s suffrage came out of the factory environments of the World Wars, while feminism of the 70s out of the academic settings of various universities. Gender equality is made more possible in a social environment where skilled labor is prized over manual labor, because it makes biological differences less of an issue.

    Far right advocates will usually defend gender roles based on notions of “performance abilities”, but in a service-oriented economy like ours the argument becomes weaker and weaker as time goes on. I think that Josephine has a point in saying that maybe there ought to be less emphasis on gender identity, since it seems that it would be more helpful to simply teach students relevant skills that would allow them to survive and prove themselves in the real world.

    On the other hand, the above notion is and ideal, and assumes that we live in a completely meritocratic society where people get rewarded purely by their ability to perform. Japan is a good example of a nation making massive technological leaps while its social structures lags behind like a rock. I had a couple of female friends and family who tried to break the mold, but because social forces were much too strong they eventually caved in and fell into traditional gender roles. They were bright and well-educated women, but in the end they got caught hitting that glass ceiling.

    Unfortunately there are no easy answers. It would be nice if we reached a point where gender doesn’t even come into consideration in these types of things, but at the same time, there are many differences between us that makes us human that we have to acknowledge. One thing I’d be careful of, though, are those who claim that they’ve reached that lens of gender-neutrality — more often than not its just political posturing. Actions speak louder than words, as they say.

  52. JHigdon

    I’m a little late getting around to reading the columns, but I did want to let Teresa know that I still write for prepared piano (I feel, after reading which way the thread has drifted, that I’m not actually off topic now).

    My orchestral work, “blue cathedral” uses prepared piano, and my chamber works, “wissahickon poeTrees” and “running the edgE” do so as well. I also have extensive playing inside the piano (with stopped strings, harmonics, and use of guitar picks) in “String Poetic” and “Zaka”.

    So I’m still using prepared piano within my pieces…it’s a fantastic way to explore the color possibilities of the instrument, and truly a great way to get audiences really curious about sound.

    I do have to say, though, that I am sometimes given grief about “running the edgE”, which is for 2 flutes and piano. I’ve encountered quite a few venues who won’t let us “prepare the piano”, so I came up with the solution of creating a CD of the prepared piano part, so that if a flutist wants to do the work, they can order the disc and use that instead…which works really well.

    -Jennifer Higdon (who loves the sound of prepared piano

  53. pamlquist

    Piano innards
    I have just finished reading this string of comments with great interest since I am all of the following: a woman, a composer, a teacher of pre-college as well as college-age students, and currently writing a piano concerto for none other than the wonderful Teresa McCollough! There is such gratification in working with a great performer who simply loves new music and who enjoys collaborating with a composer during the process of creation. The entire second movement of my new concerto will require T to play only inside the piano. Peter’s music stand–or one just as creative as that one, will be necessary. Given the venue for the premiere (an old California Mission), we may place a microphone underneath for the more delicate sounds of that movement. Does anyone have an opinion or experience to share concerning the effects on the sound when amplifying in this manner? Also–we need resin for the fishing line which will be used to bow the strings. Any favorite types–especially keeping in mind that we are concerned for the well-being of our very valuable rented Steinway? :-)

  54. mdwcomposer

    Thoughts . . . will having a microphone underneath the soundboard pick up mechanical damper or una corda pedal noise?

    bowing the strings . . . I remember seeing [sic] a piece once (might have even been David Burge) where there was a bow contraption threaded through some lower piano strings, which produced a lovely sound. This got me to question your use of fishing line. Would you be better served by using horsehair? You could probably go to a bowmaker or violin shop where they re-hair bows, and ask them to save you a clump when they do their next job. I think they probably just throw the old horsehair away. But if you get a small clump of it, somehow hold it together (like a violin bow is gathered, without the stick itself, of course), you might get something that:

    • is designed to produce string vibration
    • is already “pre-rosined” – and you could use any brand of regular rosin for string players
    • definitely wouldn’t damage piano strings – a simple wipe with a dry cloth cleans the string (which is what string players do all the time)

    You’d definitely need a clump, as a single horsehair is too delicate.

        – Mark Winges

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