Prepared piano began its life as a way to create an entire percussion ensemble for one player. It’s come a long way since then; although prepared piano can be used to take on a purely percussive function, it also can provide a way for expanding the piano’s melodic and harmonic possibilities by varying its timbre. This latter possibility is realized by the three performances included in this live set recorded at Cafe Oto in September, 2021 during its Late Works: Preparations event. For the event, twenty-three artists produced one sculpture or object each, all of which were to be placed as preparations inside a grand piano. Although all three pianists used the same twenty-three preparations for their performances, the differences in sound they were able to obtain through personal choices in how and where to place the preparations, combined with differences in musical style, made for an evening of engaging music, which fortunately was recorded.
The first performance, by Finlay Clark, begins with a neo-Romantic flourish cascading up and down the keyboard. Clark plays both inside the piano and more conventionally on the keyboard, but the majority of the piece is classically pianistic—based on challenging yet recognizably tonal harmonies and melodies driven by emotionally-charged changes in dynamics and tempo, rather than pure sound. The piano’s timbres certainly are altered dramatically, but even so, the preparations shade rather than overshadow what is essentially an expressive, virtuoso performance.
Aga Ujma’s performance moves from rapidly repeated arpeggios in the upper register to runs up and down the keyboard, the better to integrate the full range of preparation-altered timbres into her piece. There are times when it sounds as if a percussion instrument is accompanying her. She tends toward more basic, transparent harmonies and ostinati, but also briefly alludes to a Bach lute work; there are nice passages where she layers her voice on top of simple two- and three-chord progressions.
For the final performance, Max Syedtollan returns the prepared piano to its roots as a percussion ensemble. His deployment of the artists’ objects turns the lower register into a virtually unpitched zone and the upper register into a quasi-carillon; the mid-register retains more of a standard piano sound, but with a subtle detuned effect. Syedtollan’s playing tends to the heavily rhythmic—including banging directly on the strings inside the piano–which serves to emphasize the instrument’s percussive function.
Late Works: Preparations is a most welcome report on state-of-the-art prepared piano.