Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Laura Hollick: Soul Artist
Next story: The Apple

(Un)cage The Prepared Pianos

Amy Williams and Helen Bugallo play at the Burchfield-Penney on Friday and Saturday.

Buffalo native Amy Williams and her partner Helen Bugallo draw 23-day tribute to John Cage to a close this weekend

Burchfield-Penny Associate Director Don Metz does not think small. The number of museum directors who would take on the challenge of mounting a week-long festival devoted to the music of the uncompromising modernist composer John Cage has to be very limited. Metz, however, wasn’t interested in putting on a puny, week-long festival; instead, he opted for an astonishing 23 day-long event. All 545,400 seconds (23 days) of The Lecture on the Weather: John Cage in Buffalo happening winds up this weekend with a pair of special events. On Friday, February 12, at 8pm, the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo presents Dancing Cage; on Sunday, February 14, at 2pm, A Musical Feast presents a concert and a screening (read more about the event on page 44).

At their last Buffalo performance in March, 2007, sponsored by Hallwalls at the venue now known as Babeville, Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams electrified the packed audience with the virtuosity of their four-hand arrangements of several of Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano, mechanical music long deemed unplayable by human hands. Bugallo, based in Basel, Switzerland, and Williams, who is assistant professor of composition/theory at the University of Pittsburgh, have continued to actively concertize throughout Europe and North America, most recently at the Attacca Festival in Stuttgart in December, the first event in their newly launched Dancing Cage Project. That concert featured the duo’s first performance of Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos, a 1945 work by John Cage, and that work figures prominently on the Friday Dancing Cage program.

Amy Williams’ familiarity with the music of Cage goes back a long ways; her senior recital at Bennington College included a work by Cage. This is not surprising for the daughter of avant-garde percussionist Jan Williams, for many years a member of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at the University at Buffalo, and Diane Williams, a retired violist with the BPO.

“I met John Cage at one of the North American New Music Festivals in Buffalo,” Amy Williams said in a recent interview with Artvoice. “I remember his smile, which was so joyful and generous. I remember feeling, even though I was a teenager, that I was in the company of someone very special.”

Cage invented the prepared piano in 1940, when he started sticking screws, bolts, pieces of felt and rubber, among other objects, between the piano strings. Cage came up with the idea of “preparing” a piano to take the place of the large battery of percussion instruments that he used in his compositions at that time. Practical necessity was definitely a consideration, as it was far easier to transport a small box of objects as opposed to a truckful of percussion instruments. The newly developed prepared piano influenced his composition through the decade, as he wrote increasingly detailed notes on how to prepare the instrument, seemingly to the point where his instructions were impossible to follow, before his music evolved in different directions.

“Cage’s instructions for Three Pieces for Two Pianos are very specific about the measurements for where exactly on the strings to place the preparations,” Williams says. “However, we have to keep in mind that Cage’s own piano was a Steinway O, which is about six feet long. A Steinway D, for example, is about nine feet long. So the exact placement of the preparations will have to be adjusted for each piano. We start with Cage’s measurements and then use our ears to find sounds that we find interesting or beautiful.”

The question arises as to how playing on a prepared piano affects the performer. “It’s an interesting adjustment as a performer,” she says. “You practice and practice on a ‘regular’ piano and then, just before the performance, hear this totally new instrument—more like a percussion ensemble than a piano. We sampled all the sounds—I recorded each one and then composer Erik Oña set up a computer program to hear them played back—as a resource for the composers writing new pieces for us for the same preparations. We found this to be useful for us in rehearsal as well, so we actually practiced on two MIDI keyboards, hearing the actual sounds, or close to it. Certain adjustments need to be made—in terms of dynamic balance and articulation particularly—with the actual setup, but that’s the case with any piano concert. We never know exactly what our instrument will be.”

Three Pieces for Two Pianos is fun to play,” Williams says. “The third movement, especially, is extremely fast and energetic, and the longest of the three—it’s like a rollercoaster ride—it never lets up, but is totally exhilarating.”

The Bugallo-Williams Duo wanted to play this rarely performed virtuosic masterpiece for many years, but it was impractical to program it by itself, due to the almost 200 pieces needed to prepare the pianos.

They then came up with an idea of commissioning new works for the same set of preparations that Cage used. German composer Carola Bauckholt composed Myzel, the first piece in the project, and it premiered at the December concert in Stuttgart. Duelocity by John King will premiere at the Friday concert. The work uses chance operations from the I Ching, a work that figures prominently in Cage’s musical universe, to create an unpredictable combination of the two pianos.“The idea is that new composers would write for us, using the same preparations,” Williams says. “There may be one or two alterations to make for each new piece, but basically it should be the same setup. We were looking for composers whose pieces would be very different from Cage’s and from each other’s. And we certainly found that! Carola Bauckholt’s piece incorporates other ways of playing the piano—hitting or scraping the beams of the piano with a metal mallet, pulling along the low strings with a small plastic box, dampening the high strings with a shoe polishing brush—so that the Cage preparations are only some of many unusual sounds. John King’s piece is more Cage-ean in its construction, using chance operations to decide who will play what and when, but the notes that we actually play are quite modernist and gestural. So it will be quite a nice contrast to Cage’s masterpiece, which will end the program.”

Williams and Bugallo will each perform some solo piano works by Cage on Saturday afternoon. “The solo pieces on Saturday represent many different sides of John Cage’s musical personality,” says Williams, “ranging from the early Suite for Toy Piano and In a Landscape to the theatrical Water Music to the late One2. Eastern music influences, early minimalism, absurdity—there will be a duck whistle and a deck of cards—and spaciousness will all be found in this collection of pieces.”

Sounds like fun.

Admission to all the events is free. For more information visit,

blog comments powered by Disqus