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Just in: A Scots composer invents the unprepared piano

Appropriately enough for the John Cage centennial year, Scots composer Kris Lennox has set about reinventing the piano.

Here’s how it looks and sounds – you see it here first. Kris has gone public with it today.

I find it rather beautiful and would like to name the instrument, pace Cage, the unprepared piano.

Here’s Kris’s account of what he has done:

For the past 2 years i’ve been reinventing the piano as an instrument. I see using the keys i.e ‘stick pushing’ as only one way of creating sounds on the instrument. To be honest, it now seems, to me, like quite a limited pallette.

At the start you’ll see my piano looks a lot different – it evolved over time. Pieces were in the way, so I removed them/chopped them off – the lid was blocking access, so it is now gone :) as were other parts, as you’ll see (i.e the continuous bent rim at the left has been cut down – this allows me to mute the strings in the bass end to create a huge 80′s modular bass sound).

There is no better fun than taking a power tool to tradition :)

My leg was getting very tired by having to stretch under the piano to reach the pedal, so I redesigned the entire pedal unit – I deactivated the central pedal and redesigned it to have the same function as the right pedal (i.e sustain). An extension was then added to it so that I didn’t have to stretch under (tiring on the hamstring). I call this pedal extension ‘Satan’s Tongue’ :))

I wanted to remove everything that resembled tradition, so I changed every part of it i.e colour etc.

I have colour-coded the strings (and the keys to show how the system would be on the keys) – this is for identification – the colours outline a diminished 7th chord – not for any harmonic reason, but for ease of identification when inside the piano – every string can be easily worked out, as every note is only one away from a colour :)

C is red, Eb yellow, F# green, and A blue (i.e spectrally ordered). The pattern is colour, two spaces, colour etc

This vid was made about 8 months ago – my piano has changed a lot since – I have colour-coded the soundboard (the colours kept coming off the strings), and there are many other changes that have evolved.

Personally i’d like the white and black keys to go completely, and the keys to continue the colour-coding system throughout their length (with all others being black). This would make the transition to playing inside far easier. I’ve had to develop the system myself and relearn the piano accordingly, as no system was in existence. White/black is ok, but I don’t think it is the best system.
How easy would it be for a kid to learn the notes – instead of having first to learn the alphabet to learn where C is on the piano, you could simply say to the kid ‘play the red one’ :))

OK to the music – yes, it’s by Korn (a personal favourite of mine growing up) :)
This was a little arrangement I made as a demo vid that was a presentation to Yamaha’s MD – who couldn’t believe that it was one of his pianos that was making these sounds :) The audio was recorded first, then the parts were recorded on vid and sync’d with the audio (apologies for any little slips in timing with sync), made with Premiere.

And yes, I am striking the bone of my finger to create the bassline :)) yes, I have damaged my fingers in the process of creating new sounds, but hey, it’s worth it, listen to the sounds!! :))) PS there are no effects on this vid – all sounds are acoustic.

I have discovered a whole world of sound – this vid was simply to show what it is assumed can’t be done on a piano i.e slides, vibrato etc etc (i.e a small selection of the new sounds). I have some other sounds that will make dubstep fans wet themselves :) but my pallette is all-acoustic – for me, this is important i.e the discovery of a new acoustic sound-world.

Presently I have around 53 original tracks like this (i.e 3 albums worth) – more on this soon :))
I also recently signed a music publishing deal, partly due to this work on the piano. Also, more on this soon :)))

‘Prepared’ piano is ok, but personally I feel it lacks spontaneity – now that my piano has been altered, I can simply walk up to it and create a new world of sound without having to spend hours beforehand placing bits and bobs between strings at certain points. I find this a tad stale. Cage/Crumb etc made good steps with developing the piano, but they still essentially relied on the keys as the primary striking mechanism – they needed to find a plectrum :)

My piano still operates as a normal piano (aside from the sostenuto pedal), but I see it as a piano ‘plus’. The beginnings of the pianos of the future.

Opinions welcome

PS I don’t advise anyone to spend thousands on a grand piano then take it to bits without first reading as much as they can on piano construction, or having some basic joinery skills! You’ll end up with nothing more than a huge pile of wood on your floor!

Plus, very soon you may not have to take your own piano to pieces – there may be altered models available….

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  1. Thank goodness for the P.S.

  2. Impressive, nice video, but I can’t help thinking that separate instruments already exist, more conveniently playable from the start, to produce similar sounds. Still, nicely done.

  3. I think he is about 40 years late with his idea. Bowed piano was invented in 1972 and it has lead to performance techniques like this:

  4. This gives me a great idea. I’ll turn my Porsche into a tricycle.

  5. Sasha I watched the video you posted and I have to disagree with you – isn’t the point of what Kris has done is that he can now walk up to the piano and make these sounds at will, without having to spend hours first preparing the piano?

    I think it is very original. Norman summed it up well when he called it the ‘unprepared piano’.

  6. Apparently he never heard of a cimbalom.

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