is a term coined by American composer-theorist Henry Cowell
Henry Cowell was an American composer, music theorist, pianist, teacher, publisher, and impresario. His contribution to the world of music was summed up by Virgil Thomson, writing in the early 1950s:...
(1897–1965) to collectively describe those pianistic extended technique
Extended techniques are performance techniques used in music to describe unconventional, unorthodox, or non-traditional techniques of singing, or of playing musical instruments to obtain unusual sounds or instrumental timbres....
s in which sound is produced by direct manipulation of the strings
A string is the vibrating element that produces sound in string instruments, such as the guitar, harp, piano, and members of the violin family. Strings are lengths of a flexible material kept under tension so that they may vibrate freely, but controllably. Strings may be "plain"...
, instead of or in addition to striking the piano
The piano is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It is one of the most popular instruments in the world. Widely used in classical and jazz music for solo performances, ensemble use, chamber music and accompaniment, the piano is also very popular as an aid to composing and rehearsal...
A musical keyboard is the set of adjacent depressible levers or keys on a musical instrument, particularly the piano. Keyboards typically contain keys for playing the twelve notes of the Western musical scale, with a combination of larger, longer keys and smaller, shorter keys that repeats at the...
. Pioneered by Cowell in the 1920s, such techniques are now often called upon in the works of avant-garde classical music composers.
String piano compositions can involve a wide range of techniques. Among those employed by Cowell, the first major proponent of the approach, are:
- plucking (pizzicato
Pizzicato is a playing technique that involves plucking the strings of a string instrument. The exact technique varies somewhat depending on the type of stringed instrument....
- flicking back and forth across a string with a fingernail (similar to a mandolin
A mandolin is a musical instrument in the lute family . It descends from the mandore, a soprano member of the lute family. The mandolin soundboard comes in many shapes—but generally round or teardrop-shaped, sometimes with scrolls or other projections. A mandolin may have f-holes, or a single...
Tremolo, or tremolando, is a musical term that describes various trembling effects, falling roughly into two types. The first is a rapid reiteration...
- sweeping chromatically
The chromatic scale is a musical scale with twelve pitches, each a semitone apart. On a modern piano or other equal-tempered instrument, all the half steps are the same size...
across the strings with the fingers
- sweeping across the strings with the flat of the hand (producing a tone cluster
A tone cluster is a musical chord comprising at least three consecutive tones in a scale. Prototypical tone clusters are based on the chromatic scale, and are separated by semitones. For instance, three adjacent piano keys struck simultaneously produce a tone cluster...
- sweeping along one or more strings with the flesh of the finger(s)
- scraping along one or more strings with the fingernail(s)
Strings may also be pressed at specific points along their length with the fingers of one hand while being played by the other to produce different harmonic
A harmonic of a wave is a component frequency of the signal that is an integer multiple of the fundamental frequency, i.e. if the fundamental frequency is f, the harmonics have frequencies 2f, 3f, 4f, . . . etc. The harmonics have the property that they are all periodic at the fundamental...
Pitch is an auditory perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale.Pitches are compared as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies,...
. These sounding techniques may be combined with direct muting
A mute is a device fitted to a musical instrument to alter the sound produced: by affecting the timbre, reducing the volume, or most commonly both.- Musical directions for muting :...
of the strings with devices similar to those used to mute violins. In string piano pieces that call for the performer to sit at the keyboard, the keys may be depressed and held down silently with one hand to create chords
A chord in music is any harmonic set of two–three or more notes that is heard as if sounding simultaneously. These need not actually be played together: arpeggios and broken chords may for many practical and theoretical purposes be understood as chords...
, including tone clusters, that are played by the other on the strings; use of the sustain and soft pedals offer additional variations to string piano playing. For string piano pieces in which the performer stands alongside the instrument without addressing the keyboard, the pedals of the piano (and even, silently, the keys) may also be employed with the help of an assistant or a deadweight. Cowell also wrote passages for techniques involving simultaneous manipulation of the strings—sliding along one or more with the fingers or a metal object—and keyboard sounding in order to produce glissando
In music, a glissando is a glide from one pitch to another. It is an Italianized musical term derived from the French glisser, to glide. In some contexts it is distinguished from the continuous portamento...
effects. Other objects, such as bows and brushes, may also be used to elicit sound directly from the strings.
According to Cowell biographer Michael Hicks, "The first 'serious' composer to write for piano strings was probably Percy Grainger
George Percy Aldridge Grainger , known as Percy Grainger, was an Australian-born composer, arranger and pianist. In the course of a long and innovative career he played a prominent role in the revival of interest in British folk music in the early years of the 20th century. He also made many...
: at the close of his In a Nutshell
suite (1916), he directs the pianist to play on several bass strings with a yarn-covered mallet." Soon afterward, Cowell began using string piano techniques in his compositions. One of his first important works to employ the approach is the solo Piece for Piano with Strings
(1923). Per the Lichtenwanger listings, Cowell's earliest piece calling for string piano techniques is The Sword of Oblivion
(ca. 1920–22) for solo piano. Like A Composition
(1925), for piano and string quartet, it combines traditional keyboard sounding with direct string playing. Aeolian Harp
(ca. 1923) is Cowell's first composition exclusively for string piano—while keys are silently held down, as described above, all the sounding is done by direct address of the strings . Among his other works purely for string piano are The Banshee
(1925 ) and Sinister Resonance
(ca. 1930). How Old Is Song?
(1930–31) is for voice and string piano (the accompaniment is adapted from Aeolian Harp
). John Cage
John Milton Cage Jr. was an American composer, music theorist, writer, philosopher and artist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde...
, a student of Cowell's, was inspired by the string piano concept to pursue his explorations of the prepared piano
A prepared piano is a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects between or on the strings or on the hammers or dampers....
Although few composers other than Cowell have used the term "string piano" to describe their use of the piano strings (George Crumb
George Crumb is an American composer of contemporary classical music. He is noted as an explorer of unusual timbres, alternative forms of notation, and extended instrumental and vocal techniques. Examples include seagull effect for the cello , metallic vibrato for the piano George Crumb (born...
, for instance, refers to the "resources of the 'extended piano'"), such techniques were increasingly called upon during the second half of the 20th century, eventually becoming part of the general vocabulary of contemporary pianistic writing and performance. Many composers have used such "inside-the-piano" techniques sporadically, as special effects; a few have made more substantial use of them, such as Crumb (e.g., Makrokosmos
Makrokosmos is a series of four volumes of pieces for piano by American composer George Crumb. The name alludes to Mikrokosmos, a set of piano pieces by Béla Bartók, one of Crumb's favorite 20th-century composers...
, vols. 1 and 2 [1972; 1973]), Halim El-Dabh
Halim Abdul Messieh El-Dabh is an Egyptian-born American composer, performer, ethnomusicologist, and educator, who has had a career spanning six decades...
, Sofia Gubaidulina
Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina, is a Russian composer of half Russian, half Tatar ethnicity.Gubaidulina's music is marked by the use of unusual instrumental combinations...
(e.g., Dancer on a Tightrope
), Mauricio Kagel
Mauricio Kagel was a German-Argentine composer. He was notable for his interest in developing the theatrical side of musical performance .-Biography:...
(e.g., Trio in drei Sätzen
[1984–85]), Carl Orff
Carl Orff was a 20th-century German composer, best known for his cantata Carmina Burana . In addition to his career as a composer, Orff developed an influential method of music education for children.-Early life:...
), Karlheinz Stockhausen
Karlheinz Stockhausen was a German composer, widely acknowledged by critics as one of the most important but also controversial composers of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Another critic calls him "one of the great visionaries of 20th-century music"...
(e.g., Klavierstücke XII–XIV
The Klavierstücke constitute a series of nineteen compositions by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.Stockhausen has said the Klavierstücke "are my drawings"...
[1979–84]), Toru Takemitsu
was a Japanese composer and writer on aesthetics and music theory. Largely self-taught, Takemitsu possessed consummate skill in the subtle manipulation of instrumental and orchestral timbre...
(e.g., Corona for Pianists
), and David Tudor
David Eugene Tudor was an American pianist and composer of experimental music.- Biography :Tudor was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He studied piano with Irma Wolpe and composition with Stefan Wolpe and became known as one of the leading performers of avant garde piano music. He gave the...
. Stephen Scott
Stephen Scott is an American composer best known for his development of the bowed piano , which involves a grand piano being played by an ensemble of ten musicians who utilize lengths of horsehair, nylon filament, and other utensils to bow the strings of the piano, creating an orchestra-like...
uses string piano techniques exclusively.
In free improvised music
Free improvisation or free music is improvised music without any rules beyond the logic or inclination of the musician involved. The term can refer to both a technique and as a recognizable genre in its own right....
circles, Keith Tippett
Keith Tippett is a British jazz pianist and composer.Tippett, the son of a local police officer, went to Greenway Boys Secondary Modern school in Southmead, Bristol. He formed his first jazz band called The KT7 whilst still at school and they performed numbers popular at the time by The Temperance...
is renowned for his inventive use of inside-the-piano techniques. Although, like Cage, he places objects inside the piano, Tippett states that he does not "prepare" the piano, as the objects he utilizes are allowed to move about, creating a greater unpredictability in his work.
- Daughters of the Lonesome Isle: John Cage (New Albion 070)—includes In the Name of the Holocaust (1942) for string piano and Music for Piano No. 2 (1953), arranged for bowed piano, performed by Margaret Leng Tan
Margaret Leng Tan is a classical music artist known for her work as a professional toy pianist, performing in major cities around the world on her 51 cm-high toy pianos...
- George Crumb: Makrokosmos, Vols. 1 and 2 (Music and Arts 1044)—includes a number of pieces featuring string piano techniques, performed by Jo Boatright
- Henry Cowell: A Continuum Portrait, Vol. 1 (Naxos 8.559192)—includes Irish Suite, for string piano and small orchestra, performed by Continuum, Joel Sachs–conductor, Cheryl Seltzer–piano
- Henry Cowell: A Continuum Portrait, Vol. 2 (Naxos 8.559193)—includes Piece for Piano with Strings and The Banshee, performed by Cheryl Seltzer
- Henry Cowell: Piano Music (Smithsonian Folkways 40801)—includes The Banshee and (linked on one track) Aeolian Harp and Sinister Resonance, performed by Henry Cowell (album pictured in article)
- New Music: Piano Compositions by Henry Cowell (New Albion 103)—includes The Banshee, performed by Chris Brown, and Aeolian Harp, performed by Sorrel Hays
- Songs of Henry Cowell (Albany–Troy 240)—includes How Old Is Song?, performed by Mary Ann Hart–mezzo-soprano, Jeanne Golan–pianist
- Piano String Care Discussion of proper piano string care techniques
- The Aeolian Harp Piece by Henry Cowell video of performance by Lydia Aoki
- Art of the States: Henry Cowell six works by the composer, including Aeolian Harp, performed by Sorrel Hays
- Crumb, Makrokosmos Bk.I, 1—Primeval Sounds (Cancer) video of performance
- Crumb, Makrokosmos Bk.I, 2—Proteus (Pisces) video of performance
- Crumb, Makrokosmos Bk.I, 4—Crucifixus (Capricorn) video of performance
- Crumb—Tora! Tora! Tora! video of performance by Jiun Yoong Lim
- Epitonic.com: John Cage two tracks from Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, including Margaret Leng Tan's performance of In the Name of the Holocaust
- George Crumb—Makrokosmos I—Primeval Sounds (Genesis I) video of performance by Margaret Leng Tan
- Makrokosmos, Clip #1 video of performance by Scot Hawkins
- Makrokosmos, Clip #2 video of performance by Scot Hawkins
- Makrokosmos, Clip #3 video of performance by Scot Hawkins
- Makrokosmos, Clip #4 video of performance by Scot Hawkins
- Makrokosmos, Clip #5 video of performance by Scot Hawkins