September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Celebrate John Cage’s Centenary by Playing His ‘Prepared Piano’ (iOS or Android)

john cage piano

This year would have been the 100th birthday of the influential American composer John Cage, who is famous to most for composing the silent “4′ 33,”” but whose works are much more diverse, and contain notes. Don’t believe us? You can celebrate his sonic legacy with the multiplatform John Cage Piano app.

Dreamed up by the John Cage Trust and Larson Associates, the app allows you to play Cage’s famous “prepared piano” — a custom-hacked version of the traditional version — on your iPhone, iPad, Android, or Android tablet.

Most famously in his Sonatas and Interludes, Cage used his prepared pianos to develop new percussive sounds in many of his works. Essentially, he created an entirely new instrument by inserting objects — most often screws and bolts — beneath and between strings of his piano. (Ever look inside a grand piano? It looks like a big harp with little felt hammers at the end.)

Using sampled sounds from a piano prepared with the same materials — under strict supervision by the John Cage Trust — this app allows you to channel the avant-garde composer and play your own unique compositions. Helpfully, you can record and share them via Facebook, Twitter, or email — or even set them as ringtones.

john cage piano

The John Cage Piano on Android featuring nine prepared piano sounds at a time.

The app contains 36 different sounds represented in onscreen boxes, but the amount you can access at one time varies by device. On either the iPhone or Android app, both of which are free, you can play nine sounds at a time. Shuffling the sounds around lets you play with nine more.

On the tablets, things get a bit more expansive — and expensive. With the $1 app for iPad or Android Tablet, you’ll have access to thirty sampled sounds at a time, and can similarly shuffle to work with a new batch of sounds.

Boxes representing each available sound are either empty, if they correspond to an unaltered piano note, or feature a picture indicating the particular object used to alter the note. (It’s simpler than it sounds.)

There is, however, a problem with some versions of this app somewhat reminiscent of Cage’s legendary “4;33.””

Eager to play around with it, we were dismayed to discover that this app continuously crashed during installation on an iPhone. However, we were able to successfully get the app up and running on an Android phone — the Samsung Galaxy S IIm specifically.

Apparently the installation is the hardest part because, once the app was running, we were playing and recording music in no time. Simply tap different boxes or drag your finger across the screen to play notes. The navigation bar at the top of the screen lets you shuffle the available notes, elect to show or hide note names, and record your prepared piano masterpieces.

The app’s easy learning curve means you can spend more time mastering your sound rather than mastering the app, assuming you can get it running (in the case of iOS). If you’re a fan of John Cage and the prepared piano sound, or avant-garde music in general, you’ll probably enjoy mucking around with this thing for hours. It definitely entertains.

Incidentally, John Cage Piano is not the only app that came out this year in honor of Cage’s birthday. The equally-entertaining Third Coast Percussion: John Cage app samples actual percussive sounds from Cage compositions.

We highly recommend both apps. Perhaps you and a friend can play a duet.