A fundamental component of what separates the performance practice of contemporary music from the music of earlier periods is the concept of extended techniques. Composers’ desire to go beyond the clearly delineated sounds and uses of classical instruments as standardized in the past has been a consistent theme in the music of composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This drive for new sounds and approaches has manifested itself in a variety of ways, but no instrument’s repertoire has been touched by this concept more deeply than the piano.
This week on Hammered!, we will examine music that is for “piano plus…” That is, music that takes traditional piano writing (and playing!) as a starting point, but deviates from the basics of traditional technique to communicate its musical goals.
Some early examples of composers who sought to expand the instrument will be covered—Henry Cowell’s "string piano" technique of performing directly on the strings, and John Cage’s earth-shattering development of the "prepared piano" incorporating mutes and insertions that alter the timbre of the instrument. We will also take a look at some of the major trends that have led to the development of specific niches within the larger piano repertoire—works that incorporate pre-recorded sound or those that require the pianist to speak, sing, or act.
As the piano repertoire demands more and more of performers, it more clearly reflects the more diversified cultural world in which we now interact and express ourselves. The development of piano writing and performance practice will continue to move in fits and starts, as history must, but adventurous listeners are clearly the beneficiaries of the ambitious experiments of composers and performers at the piano today.