Concert Hall Column: Amy Williams Plays John Cage

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By: Caitlin Shannon, Editor of Student Life and Arts Photo from:

Had you walked into the concert on Wednesday evening and struck a key on the piano, you might have been surprised to hear a ‘thud’ or ‘buzz’ instead of a concert A. That’s because Dorian Crimminss’19), Ashlie Sicilia (’19) and Brandon Johnson-Douglass (’18) got to prepare the piano for Wednesday night’s performance of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes by American pianist and composer Amy Williams.

Unless you’ve studied 20th century classical music and compositional techniques you are probably wondering what it means to prepare a piano. No, it doesn’t mean polishing it or even tuning up its strings. Prepared piano is a technique pioneered and popularized by American composer John Cage, which involves lodging small objects in between the strings of the piano’s soundboard to change the timbre, pitch or sonority of different notes. By doing so, the piano turns into an ensemble of a dozen percussion instruments manned by one musician. Crimmins, Sicilia and Johnson-Douglass prepared the Concert Hall’s piano with rusty screws, long nails, bolts, bits of plastic and even rubber erasers, under the supervision and guidance of Williams. Of this experience, Crimmins said, “Preparing the piano with Amy Williams really put everything in context for me, bringing the concepts I had learned from class into life. I couldn’t help thinking about how I was not only handling preparations approved by John Cage, but could be handling preparations which he perhaps touched.” The erasers, nuts and bolts that they put inside the piano were given to Williams while she was on a trip in Thailand, as she explained in her pre-concert chat, by pianist Bennett Lerner who worked closely with Cage on perfecting the preparations for his Sonatas and Interludes.

The Sonatas and Interludes are a musical journey through the eight emotions of Ancient Hindu aesthetics. These are the emotions that we all feel and that define the human condition. They are divided into the white emotions, the heroic, the erotic, the mirthful and the wondrous and the black emotions, fear, anger, disgust and sorrow. Sonatas and Interludes is often considered to be one of Cage’s best achievements, not only because it is much more complex than his other pieces for prepared piano but also because of its rhythmic proportions. Each of the 16 sonatas not only follow some variation of sonata form but also use proportions to organize every element of each sonata from rhythm to individual melodic line.

On Wednesday Williams, a U.S. Fulbright Scholar at the University College Cork in Ireland, performed Sonatas and Interludes for an intimate yet substantial crowd. Rather than sitting in the hall the audience, made up of Drew students, community members and faculty, sat on stage in a semicircle around the piano. This not only allowed for a personal touch to the performance but allowed the audience to see the preparations up close. Following the performance, which left the audience tranquil as the final sonata ended, Williams opened up the floor to questions. Many audience members asked questions about the technical aspects and challenges of practicing and performing a piece for prepared piano while Drew students asked questions about her own experiences as a composer and as a musician.

Then, audience members were given the chance to play around on the piano. Drewids flocked to the keyboard and began playing around, listening to the different sounds and seeing how timbres changed when preparation were tweaked and adjusted. Everyone had a different approach to the prepared piano, from taking improvising with the different percussive sounds to trying to play standard piano pieces and noticing the difference in timbre.

Drewids were very lucky to have the opportunity to see Williams, an Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Pittsburgh and a renowned composer and musician on the modern music scene, perform this special piece.


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