Tag Archives: reappropriation

Richard Aphex, John Cage and the Prepared Piano | Robert Worby

Richard Aphex, John Cage and the Prepared Piano | Robert Worby.

There’s a lot of piano on the Aphex Twin’s album ‘Drukqs’. Often referred to as the Ambient tracks or even the Classical tracks. Extremely pleasant, often slow, with lots of harmonies. Some of the tracks are straight piano – strotha tynhe, avril 14th, father – and some have the piano sound altered, offering metallic rattles, woody clunks and textured thwacks. These are the classic sounds of the ‘Prepared Piano’, an instrument invented, in 1940, by the American Experimental composer John Cage. A piano is ‘prepared’ by placing small, everyday objects in the strings. When Cage first did this the objects were screws, bolts and pieces of ‘weather stripping’ (short strips of felt covered plastic used for draught-proofing windows).


Cage believed that music should be made of sound and silence – any sounds, not just notes – and the only characteristic common to both sound and silence is duration – length of time. Silence cannot be high or low, loud or quiet, harsh or smooth. Silence is silence – absence of sound – it can last for a short time or a long time and that’s it. Sounds also have duration. All sounds stop (actually Cage discovered two sounds that don’t) and the fact that they stop enables the phenomenon of rhythm. If sounds didn’t stop, it would be extremely difficult to make rhythms. Having decided that rhythm was more important than melody and harmony and that all sounds, not just notes, could be used to make music, Cage began to work with percussion. His group played conventional orchestral instruments – drums, rattles, cymbals etc – and invented a few of their own – automobile brake drums, kitchen utensils, household objects etc.

Most of the strings of a grand piano are usually grouped in threes, the exception to this are the bass notes, where the strings get longer and thicker, which are grouped in twos and, the very low notes, which are single strings. The fact that each note is a tight group of three strings enables small objects placed between the strings to be held in place by the tension in the strings. A screw or a bolt or a pencil rubber will simply stay put when it is inserted into the piano strings. And when such an object is gripped by the strings it changes the sound that is produced when the piano hammer strikes. No longer is there a clear note, with identifiable pitch, there is instead an exotic rattle, ping or thud like an instrument from Africa or the Far East.


The dance had an African theme and Cage was asked to write music that had a flavour of Africa. So, using only his piano he tried to find scales and groupings of notes that had this kind of sound. He couldn’t do it. The notes were not working. It was notes themselves that were problematic; the piece didn’t need conventional notes, but notes were what a piano produced. “I decided that what was wrong was the piano, not my efforts, because I was conscientious” Cage wrote later. He needed some way of changing the sound of the piano. Cage and seen and heard the results of extended piano techniques devised by his teacher Henry Cowell. These involved plucking strings inside the piano, strumming across the strings and rubbing a darning needle along a string. The effect of these techniques changed the sound of the piano creating interesting harmonics and, what were then, new sounds. Cage tried some of these ideas and then experimented with household objects placed inside the piano. He tried resting a metal pie plate on the strings. It gave an interesting sound but it bounced about. He tried an iron nail inserted into a group of strings but it fell out. He knew he was moving in the right direction. The thread of a woodscrew would hold it in place if it was twisted into the space in a group of strings. Similarly with a bolt. Cage had hit on the right objects. Later he recalled, “I was delighted to notice that by means of a single preparation two different sounds could be produced. One was resonant and open, the other was quiet and muted. The quiet one was heard whenever the soft pedal was used.”

Having prepared his piano he set about composing the piece. This was done relatively quickly. It starts at a furious pace, buzzing and rattling and pinging like a collection of thick tin cans. The rhythm is strident and very clear with a strong pulse. It’s like clockwork, acoustic techo. Music for windup toys. As the pace slows, weird bell-like tones shimmer and resonate like some early 80s digital synthesizer in its gurgling death throes. Cage had hit upon a fabulous new soundworld.

There are many pieces, written by Cage (and others), for prepared piano. The Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48) are a collection of short pieces written with rhythm and durational proportions (phrase lengths, numbers of bars, repeated sections) as the main structural element. Music for Marcel Duchamp was composed in 1947 and was used to accompany part of the experimental film ‘Dreams That Money Can Buy’ by the Dadaist Hans Richter. Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1951) completely extends the classical idea of a concerto and the role of the solo instrument against the orchestra.


What music meant was no longer clear. Melody, harmony and the idea of memorable tunes disappeared. New sounds, dislocated rhythms and dissonance were the ingredients of the new music.


Nearly sixty years later Richard James was in a BBC studio taking part in a Radio 3 programme called ‘Mixing It’ which no longer exists. His music was being played along with the usual fabulous eclectic mix that this programme offered. One of Cage’s prepared piano pieces was played and Mr Aphex’s ears were drawn to the extraordinary sounds. He enquired about the prepared piano and how it was all done. Many other techno artists would have probably prepared a piano and sampled some of the sounds, but not Richard James, he knew this simply wouldn’t work and that any results of this process would be crass. He bought a grand piano that can be played by computer. It’s called a ‘Diskclavier’ and it’s made by Yamaha. It’s exactly like a straightforward grand piano but the keys can be controlled by a computer via MIDI – the musical instrument digital interface. Richard James cannot read conventional musical notation and he cannot play a keyboard so, in order to make the piano and prepared piano pieces that appear on ‘Drukqs’ he prepared his Diskclavier according to the principles established by John Cage and programmed the playing using a computer. The results are there for all to hear. It’s a real piano on Drukqs, not a sampler or a synthesizer. Richard James has brought the sound of the forties into the 21st century.


From the Gherkin to Krakow’s Skeletor: famous skyscrapers that flopped | Art and design | The Guardian

From the Gherkin to Krakow’s Skeletor: famous skyscrapers that flopped | Art and design | The Guardian.

Norman Foster's 30 St Mary Axe – AKA the Gherkin.

Skyscrapers are usually considered signs of success, steel-framed declarations of triumph. But they’re equally associated with corporate hubris, architectural ego and recession – the latter tallied via the Skyscraper Index, which plots the striking correlation between the completion of a new “world’s tallest building” and the arrival of a global economic downturn.

The failure of Norman Foster‘s Gherkin is just the latest example. Made unprofitable by changes in currency exchange rates, it was recently put into receivership and is now up for sale at an estimated price of £640m. It may yet recover, of course, but for now it joins the already long list of skyscraping architecture’s most conspicuous flops.

The Empire State Building
The architects of the longest-serving “world’s tallest” – which reigned from the early 30s until the mid-70s – were given a staggeringly idiotic brief. In a possibly apocryphal story, the boss of General Motors picked up a pencil, balanced it on the desk and asked, “How tall can you make it without it falling over?” One hundred and three storeys was the answer, but it became the first of the recession-predicting skyscrapers on the Index, known as the “Empty State Building” through the Great Depression, and presaging other Index members such as the World Trade Centre (mid-70s recession), the Petronas Towers (the Asian financial crash) and the Burj Khalifa (the current recession).


There are several skyscrapers that faced sudden obsolescence when their countries’ respective economies collapsed, leaving them perpetually unfinished – such as “Skeletor”, the tallest building in Krakow, an office block begun in 1975 and abandoned in 1981 as an empty steel frame. Designed for the Polish Federation of Engineering Associations, it is now used as a giant frame for billboards.

The Ryugyong Hotel
The tallest building in Pyongyang, begun in 1987, is the most notorious example of this genre. Now an insanely overambitious remnant from when North Korea was as rich as South Korea, it was left unfinished as the Soviet collapse plunged the country into famine. It is now finally being completed, 27 years on.

Torre David
This unfinished, partly mirror-glass-clad Caracas office block has been a cause celebre for those few architects more interested in social than architectural change: years after being abandoned, it was squatted by a tightly organised group of citizens, creating a “vertical slum”. After years with the tacit support of the Chávez and Maduro governments, it is now being sold to Chinese developers and its inhabitants rehoused elsewhere. It remains an exceptional example of a skyscraper being claimed by the masses, rather than by big business.

Exploring No-Man’s-Land in the 21st Century — War is Boring — Medium

Exploring No-Man’s-Land in the 21st Century — War is Boring — Medium.

Barrier walls in the Palestinian territories in 2004. Lisa Nessan/Flickr photo

Following the end of World War I, Europe’s intellectuals tried to understand and explain what everyone just went through. They also tried to grapple with the reality of industrialized warfare and the no-man’s-lands it created.

Blasted, blown up and raked by machine gun fire. The no-man’s-land was a place that people couldn’t go without risking death.

Some thinkers on the political left saw no-man’s-land as symbolic of the destruction of Europe’s dying, traditional political order. However, intellectuals on the right saw the battlefield as a place where young men could be reborn into the fascist shock troops of Weimar Germany.

The fixed trenches of World War I are long gone. But the no-man’s-land never really went away, according to Noam Leshem, a political geographer at Durham University in England who studies modern no-man’s-lands.

From Cyprus, Western Sahara, the Palestinian territories to the Korean peninsula, no-man’s-lands are now tourist attractions, environmental preserves and places to make money.

Leshem’s work is available at Re-Inhabiting No-Man’s Land, a collection of writing and research on modern dead zones.


Our concern began with the obvious no-man’s-land of the First World War, but Alasdair reminded me the term was constantly being circulated in reference to very different sites.

So anything from other geopolitical areas like the demilitarized zones between the Koreas, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or even urban geopolitical no-man’s-lands like the one that divided Jerusalem until 1967.

But even beyond the geopolitical vocabulary, what we saw was that no-man’s land entered our lingo to refer to anything from gangland in the heart of North American cities to tax havens in the Caribbean.

When we started looking into this, one of our key goals was to try and understand the history of the term, and to our surprise the term is much older than 1915, i.e. the Battle of the Somme. It dates back to the 14th century and to London during the months preceding the plague, when the bishop of London buys a lot of land outside the city to prepare a mass grave ahead of the bubonic plague.

We found that relationship between a space and death to be kind of one of the key characteristics of no-man’s-land throughout its history. And what we’re trying to do today is two things, is first is continue to understand the history of the term beyond its sort of Anglo-Saxon origins, but also ask what do no-man’s-lands in the 21st century mean?

RB: We often think no-man’s-land as a sort of desolate environment. But in the Cyprus buffer zone there’s actually a lot of stuff going on there.

NL: Absolutely. Cyprus is a great example. As you know, there’s a lot of economic activity. There’s a lot of farming going on in the designated U.N. buffer zone, but you also get newly constructed industrial zones that are rezoned by the U.N. for civilian use.

So what you get are sub-civilian spaces within the militarized space of the buffer zone designated for economic activity.

In addition you get a lot of smuggling—of drugs, people across the no-man’s-land. And I would add to that: tourism. The buffer zone in Cyprus has become one of the key tourist attractions on the island. Beaches, good food and you get some buffer zone watchers.

So absolutely this is a very significant space economically and a space that is constantly inhabited, governed, monitored and practiced.

There are things happening in it that makes it a significant space rather than just this empty no-go zone.

RB: There’s also environmental features to these spaces. The demilitarized zone in the Koreas is a famous wildlife sanctuary.

NL: Here’s a funny anecdote from when we were in Cyprus a few weeks. One of our interviewees told us that Cypriots just absolutely love hunting, and although most of the wildlife on the island is completely extinct, he said if you want to find snakes, go to the buffer zone. If you want to find wildlife, go to the buffer zone.

That’s the only place where animals have survived because hunting is not allowed there.

As you pointed out, the demilitarized zone between the Koreas is a very important Asian wildlife sanctuary. Chernobyl is famous for the resuscitation of natural habitats as a result of the withdrawal of human activity. The herds of wild horses that roam Chernobyl these days have become almost as famous as reactor number four.

However, there’s again an interesting history because in 19th century notebooks of expeditions in North America, we find repeated references to the no-man’s-land as a space between two warring tribes where wildlife game finds refuge.

So already that association between sanctuary and no-man’s-land is made long before we designated the demilitarized zone in the Koreas as a sanctuary or the inadvertent creation of a wildlife sanctuary in Chernobyl.

There’s a fantastic film on the community of bunnies that found refuge in Berlin between the two sides of the wall. So in the no-man’s-land in Berlin, there was a huge community of bunnies.

It’s really important issue. It sheds light on the interests that preserve these spaces. I think that’s not just about preserving these spaces for the future, but the sense that the spaces are still a part of human concern.

RB: You had a recent post on your blog about [German war veteran and writer] Ernst Juenger. What were you trying to do there?

NL: Juenger was one of the most important thinkers that repeatedly returns in his writing and thinking to the no-man’s-land. The no-man-land’s for Juenger—contrary to the traditional definition of it as this desolate no-go zone—is a very productive space.

The no-man’s-land is a space from which a new man emerges, a man that has fused with machine and with earth to create this new—almost cyborg—creature that has bettered himself to such an extent that he is a new kind of being.

Not only is this happening on an individual level, but also on a social level. He talks about there being a “community of the trenches.”

But it’s important to remember that Juenger was part of a very specific intellectual group traditionally positioned on the right in Weimar Germany that celebrated the no-man’s-land, that romanticized it. On the other side, still in Weimar Germany, we see people like Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin was exempt from military service in the First World War, but he constantly returns to the no-man’s-land as a space where a philosophical crisis happens. Benjamin repeatedly asks, what’s the meaning of this space of destruction?


In the Second World War, that is transplanted from the trenches to the enclosed space of the gas chamber, or remotely through aerial bombardment. And what we have here is a change in status and no-man’s-land is no longer applied to concrete spaces of warfare and death.

The U.N. buffer zone in Cyprus in December 2012. Athena Lao/Flickr photo