Challenging the Piano in 20th Century American Music

Nikolai Sadik-Ogli 23.6.2014

Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Philharmonic has established a convenient category for a certain type of American composer: the Mavericks. Since 2000, he has used this name for a series of concerts featuring composers such as Aaron Copland, Morton Feldman, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, and many others. One common thread throughout the careers of several Mavericks, and a few other American composers and musicians, was a unique attitude towards the use and status of the piano, which, for those born at the turn of the century, was still a typical parlor instrument found in many households, movie theaters and bars. Also at that time, piano-based ragtime music from America became internationally popular, thus forever damaging European musical dominance and signaling the beginning of a new American musical influence. Eventually, American composers developed a variety of original approaches and attitudes towards the piano. Several explored the instrument’s untapped capabilities through wild performance techniques that they used to scandalously launch their careers, while others modified it at whim or even made it an object of ridicule to be abused and destroyed. Some composers ignored it completely and wrote music exclusively for other instruments. These extreme American approaches to the piano revealed much about the status of the instrument as the shining centerpiece of the imported European musical tradition that the new American composers hoped to surpass in favor of their own, independent ideas.

Leo Ornstein (Wikipedia)

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is one of the primary early Mavericks. His father, George, was a band leader and took a unique approach to the piano by having his son play a melody and accompaniment in two different keys, or by having his son sing in one key while accompanying him in another, in order to stretch his ears. Charles Ives’s own compositions included the notoriously difficulty Piano Sonata # 2, in which each of the four movements was designed to honor a famous intellectual from Concord, Massachusetts, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Nathaniel Hawthorn, etc. It “sampled” Beethoven’s Symphony # 5 throughout, and the first movement included an optional, yet brief, part for viola, while the last movement called for a flute, also briefly, in order to represent Henry David Thoreau, who played one. Additionally, at one point, the second movement required the use of a board to press down keys chromatically in order to produce a cluster chord. For the published score, Ives wrote an explanatory companion piece, Essays before a Sonata; this gesture, like the additional instrumentation and unusual performance accessory, reflected the beginning of a new, American approach to the instrument that disregarded the restricted traditions it represented. Ives’s work generally exhibited an individualistic and idiosyncratic approach to music that consistently explored unique techniques such as polyphony, polyrhythms, and atonality, often years before they became common compositional tools. He went so far as to experiment with Three Quarter Tone Pieces in 1924, in the same spirit as other composers who were extending the capabilities of the piano beyond its prescribed tonal limitations.

Ives’s Yankee friend, Carl Ruggles (1876-1971), pursued another personally inventive and intense relationship with music and the instrument. A visitor once encountered him playing a dense chord over and over again while singing another note on top of it (a precursor to minimalism!). When he finally gathered up the nerve to ask the composer the purpose for the apparently tedious exercise, Ruggles explained that he was giving that particular passage the test of time in the immediate present, instead of relying on posterity to make the decision for him. Ruggles’s limited output of some twenty pieces included a few piano selections, several of which were versions of his complex and dramatic orchestral scores.


Though he was born in the Ukraine, Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) returned to Europe in 1914 for a successful tour as a so-called ultramodern Futurist from America. In addition to having unarguably exceptional performance technique for playing other composers’ works, including Arnold Schoenberg, Ornstein’s own pieces carried wild names such as Danse sauvage and Suicide in an Airplane and used dense chords and other elements that required dramatically enhanced and unusual performance techniques. His concerts stirred both great controversy and public interest, and the novelty in his work caused him to be grouped with the avant-garde movements then sweeping Europe, especially Futurism, even though he had no real formal ties to the official Italian movement led by F. T. Marinetti.

Shortly after Ornstein’s heyday, Henry Cowell (1897-1965) embarked on a strikingly similar career. Born in California to Bohemian parents, Cowell was encouraged in his independent development as a wild child prodigy. As a youth, he was taken in by the theosophical commune, Halcyon, led by mystical Celtic poet John Varian, and during his involvement with the group, Cowell composed his earliest piano pieces for use in dramatic performances. These included The Tides of Manaunaun, which used thick chromatic chords that Cowell called tone clusters and played using his fists and forearms. These experiments lead to pieces such as The Banshee and The Aeolian Harp, in which Cowell directly plucked or scraped the strings themselves. Ignoring the keyboard and getting up to reach inside the piano completely flaunted hundreds of years of accepted performance practice and caused great scandal when audiences first saw him use the technique.

Watch Cowell in action:

At UC Berkeley, Cowell studied under composer and musicologist, Charles Seeger, the inventor of dissonant counterpoint. During this time, Cowell wrote his thesis, New Musical Resources, in which he admitted that some of the harmonic and rhythmic ideas he theoretically postulated could only be realized through the use of a player piano because they were beyond the physical capabilities of human performers. Even though he never personally acted on this idea, he collaborated with Leon Theremin on the experimental Rhythmicon in 1930, a primitive device in which the keys controlled different rhythms programmed in set ratios between each other. Ultimately, Cowell transcended the European tradition to embrace the whole world of music; he travelled extensively, studying and promoting different musical traditions and incorporating foreign techniques and instruments into his own compositions.

Antheil caricature ( Antheil (1900-1959) came next in the cavalcade of ultramodern pianists from America. He stormed through Europe in 1922, creating scandal everywhere he went. Raised in Trenton, New Jersey, Antheil purposely intended to conquer the world through music. He had cultivated a singularly unbeatable technique that made him an instant critical success as a performer of others’ work. Simultaneously, his compositional ambitions led him to write dramatic pieces with spectacular titles, such as Death of the Machines, that were specifically designed to stir controversy and suggest Futurist associations (like Ornstein’s pieces). The tactics worked and led to riots and uproar at Antheil’s concerts throughout the continent, most spectacularly and importantly in Paris. Antheil bragged about having once performed with a pistol resting on top of the piano after having asked for the hall doors to be locked so that he could ensure the audience’s rapt attention. Throughout the 1920s, Antheil collaborated on a number of projects with Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who also had a tenacious relationship with the piano. While working as the pseudonymous music critic, William Atheling, for A.R. Orage’s magazine The New Age from 1917-1921, Pound had written several articles that criticized the instrument, the rigid tuning system that it represented, and many of the musicians that he saw perform on it. Pound did, however express enthusiasm over Antheil’s music and ideas, especially the Ballet Mecanique, which Antheil revised into several different versions that use a widely varying arsenal of pianos and pianolas, ranging anywhere from one to twenty.


Some American composers worked with the piano in ways that were purposefully disengaged from and even directly antagonistic to its European tradition and contemporary developments. Foremost among these was Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), who staked his entire compositional career on Cowell’s passing recommendation to use a player piano to realize humanly unplayable ideas. Born in Texarkana, Arkansas, Nancarrow played jazz before he went to fight in Spain against the Fascists, but upon returning, he was denied re-entry into the US and therefore moved to Mexico City. Ignoring the traditional instrument and eschewing human performers, Nancarrow acquired two player pianos in the 1940s and customized their hammers with tacks and felt. He also obtained a hand-operated roll punching machine and liberated it from its preset traditionally rhythmic grids in order to be able to compose anything he wanted. By hand-punching every single note onto the roll, he wrote over fifty incredibly fast and dense piano Studies that could never be performed by a single human. His experiments took the instrument to the furthest reaches then imaginable, and the dozens of arpeggiated notes that fly by each second occasionally sound like science-fiction laser beams. Even more so, there remains something disturbing about the sight of an empty player piano maniacally playing such inhuman music, especially because it simultaneously looks like a remnant from a dusty Wild West saloon but sounds like a modern disco. In one experiment from the 1950s, Nancarrow used modified player piano mechanisms to control the mallets, bells, and other elements of an automated percussion orchestra to again realize inhumanly fast music; then he went even further by editing recordings of the device in order to experiment with tape composition.

John Cage (

In 1938, John Cage (1912-1992) first turned the piano into a percussion orchestra through his development of the “prepared piano.” At first, out of necessity, Cage had wanted to reduce the space and personnel required to accompany dance performances, which he had been doing in percussion ensembles with Lou Harrison. Realizing that pianos were ubiquitous and required only one person to play, he realized that they could be prepared by placing different objects, such as nuts, bolts, springs, and wires, directly onto the strings in order to create new sounds and effects. In this way, the piano easily approximated the percussion music for which he had used hubcaps, car brakes, metal sheets, and other found scrap yard items alongside real, but often unusual and non-European, percussion instruments. As he continued to develop the idea, Cage created an extensive repertoire of pieces that included precise instructions for the preparations to be made to the instrument before performance; these culminated in the expansive, Satie-inspired set of Sonatas and Interludes, completed in 1948. That same year, in a child-like expression of the spirit of his experiment, Cage composed the Suite for Toy Piano. Then, he went even further and negated the piano entirely with 4’33”, a piece that was first performed by David Tudor in Woodstock, New York, in August 1952, and still remains the most infamous musically avant-garde gesture of all time. For the performance, Tudor raised and lowered the piano lid to signal each of the three movements, during which he sat still and silent at the keys while the increasingly confused and uncomfortable audience listened to the wind and the rain as a background to the noises they themselves were making. Even though it was eventually expanded to be playable in any instrumental configuration, this first performance, written on traditional manuscript paper using nothing but rests, completely denied and challenged the entire musical heritage represented by the Europe concert tradition along with the repertoire of the instrument on which Tudor first performed the piece. After completing this completely dismissive gesture, which he had theoretically developed over several years, Cage then returned to the piano with a startlingly violent approach that served as the painfully physical completion of the profoundly destructive gestures that he had now advanced, first through expanding, and then by silencing, the instrument. In concerts with Tudor, grand pianos were often kicked, slammed, and hit, while being loudly amplified, sometimes to a volume level that created painful feedback. At other less antagonistic performances, Cage simply allowed the piano to be present, and perhaps occasionally played, while he performed a whirlwind mix of ridiculous Dada and Zen activities around the old instrument.

Watch Cage demonstrate this more playful approach in a performance of Water Walk on the TV show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” in 1960:

Cage’s dramatics can be heard in concert with the contemporary Fluxus and other avant-garde activities that happened throughout the 1960s. These events often involved destructive actions and many unfortunate pianos were regularly abused, burned, or demolished, possibly most famously in the work of Nam June Paik. There is a wonderful photograph of Finnish artist J. O. Mallander performing La Mont Young’s Piano Piece # 1 for Terry Riley by pushing the instrument around the stage. Peter Whitehead’s documentary about New York City, The Fall (1969), included a sequence where the performer rubbed a live chicken against an upright piano and then smashed it to pieces against it, before finally chopping up the instrument with an ax. In an echo of the extreme performances put on by the early 20th century ultramodern Futurists, Charlemagne Palestine would play such violently repetitive and rhythmic pieces that the strings would often detune or break while also incorporating disturbingly extreme physical activities into his performances.

Ultimately, some composers rejected the instrument completely. Like Cage, during the 1930s, Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), who moved to America from France and ceaselessly explored new possibilities for music, William Russell (1905-1992), who ultimately gave up composition to record and preserve traditional New Orleans jazz, and a number of other composers, often commissioned by Cowell, specialized in composing music exclusively for percussion ensemble. Independent of this and any other group, but first and foremost among those Americans to have an extremely allergic reaction to the piano, along with all European musical instruments and tradition, was Harry Partch (1901-1974). Even though he had started out playing the instrument in the local silent movie theater and as a young composer had worked on a piano concerto and published the song, While My Heart Keeps Beating Time, with traditional piano accompaniment, Partch discovered scientific literature documenting acoustical experiments in tone and human perception while also studying ancient Greek musical theory. These influences gave him a new reason for musical existence that eventually came to encompass ritual theater and a self-built orchestra of singular instruments for which he composed using a ratio-based notational system that represented the just intonation of the Pythagorean tuning. In 1930, Partch burned all of his early work as misguided juvenilia, though the song survived to his chagrin because it had been published under the pseudonym, Paul Pirate. That same year, Partch completed the adapted viola, the first of many original instruments he built to realize his theories. Partch’s drastic change in direction was rooted in a complete rejection of the piano. This attitude was accompanied by an extensive verbal campaign of vitriolic invective delivered at every opportunity in Partch’s inimitable style to denigrate the despised instrument and the entire tuning system and musical heritage that it stood for; his most famous excoriation damned the piano as, “sixty four black and white bars standing in front of musical freedom.” Nevertheless, Partch was captured nostalgically playing the hated instrument on a recording made in 1966 at the San Diego home of ensemble player, Danlee Mitchell.


Sun Ra ( Elliot Carter once dismissed Cage’s theatrics by recalling an old vaudeville performer who repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt a piano throughout his comical attempts to perform a piece. Similarly, throughout the 20th century, other American musicians working in different traditions also challenged and extended the instrument. As mentioned above, ragtime was a piano-based music that presented new and unbeatably popular sounds to be tried out on the family instrument, and such innovations continued in jazz through the incredible playing of uniquely personal musicians like Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, and innumerable others. Many jazz musicians who specialized in other instruments often played the piano, as well; for example, at the end of his tragically brief career, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke improvised impressionistic piano solos that were inspired by Claude Debussy and transcribed into compositions, and Charles Mingus recorded a solo album. Ultimately, however, Sun Ra (1914-1993) stands out as an enthusiastic explorer of innovative possibilities for the instrument. He started in traditional rhythm and blues and first recorded in 1946 for the legendary shouter, Wynonie Harris. In 1948, Ra expanded the instrument by attaching a Hammond Solovox, a short electronic keyboard designed to augment the piano, and used it in duets with violinist Stuff Smith and others; many of these recordings have only recently been released. They document the experimental enthusiasm that inevitably led Ra to become permanently associated with electric pianos and synthesizers. An overview of his changing styles is well summarized on the album Deep Purple (Dreams Come True), where Side One includes some of his earliest recordings, while Side Two showcases his later explorations.

Jerry Lee Lewis ( to jazz and reminiscent of Ives’s and Cage’s use of unusual instruments, lounge pianist Martin Denny’s band effectively incorporated aboriginal instruments and fake animal sounds to evoke exotic jungle landscapes. Further, early rock and roll antics resembled avant-garde, especially Fluxus, performances: Little Richard (b. 1932) stood on his piano and threw his clothes to the audience; Jerry Lee Lewis (b. 1935) played with his feet, kicked over his stool, also stood on the instrument, and was even rumored to have set one on fire. Such practices filled the silent challenge created by the vacuum of John Cage’s 4’33”. These American musicians relegated the piano to the status of a prop, pedestal, or toy over which they exerted complete control: they could play with their feet, upside or backwards, or they could simply not play the instrument at all while continuing to engage in other entertaining stage antics. On the other hand, harkening back to the origins of the problem, sensitive “power ballads” and progressive rock aspirations (when the lead singer sits down at the stool) demonstrate the continuingly ambivalent status of the piano. In such genres, which are sometimes appropriately ridiculed, the instrument has been perceived as a signal of obnoxiously egotistical statements resulting from a misguided grandiosity involving the overt display of poetic sincerity and the attempt to invoke the clout believed to be automatically bestowed by adhering to serious European concert styles. For example, during a show in 1970, Neal Young joked that for purposes of eccentricity he demanded a nine foot Steinway grand piano for performances, while in 2009 by Andrew W. K. challenged such interpretations with his improvisational solo album, 55 Cadillac.

Of course, these American developments occurred at the same time as changes in Europe and elsewhere also continued to expand the piano and its repertoire in dramatic ways. For example, the revolutionary 20th British composer, Kaikhosru Sorabji, wrote challenging works that remained unperformed for decades before sufficiently trained performers appeared who were able to play them to the composer’s satisfaction. Others, including Stravinsky, explored the mechanical possibilities of the pianola, while a rare few, like Alois Hába, experimented with quarter tone tunings. Ultimately, as foreseen by predecessor instruments, such as the Rhythmicon and Solovox, the keyboard layout became the primary interface associated with synthesizers, Moogs, and other electronic instruments.


Nikolai Sadik-Ogli is currently studying the interconnections and developments between certain trends and participants in twentieth century American music history, such as the composers discussed above, as well as Song Poems, Jandek, and the Beats. Otherwise, he is currently actively reading books by Philip K. Dick.


Antheil, George
Bad Boy of Music. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1945.
George Antheil: Piano Concertos 1 & 2, A Jazz Symphony, Jazz Sonata. cpo: Norddeutscher Rundfunk, 2005. With “Sowing Wild Oats and Sonata Notes: George Antheil and the Piano” by Eckhardt van den Hoogen; translated by Susan Marie Praeder.
George Antheil’s Ballet Mecanique: A Recreation of his Carnegie Hall Concert of 1927. MusicMasters, 1992. With program notes by Maurice Peress.

Cage, John
Gann, Kyle. No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Pepper, Ian. “From the ‘Aesthetics of Indifference’ to ‘Negative Aesthetics’: John Cage and Germany 1958-1972.” October, Vol. 82 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 30-47. The MIT Press Stable.
Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-1948). Cherry Red Records, 2006.

Cowell, Henry
Cowell, Henry. New Musical Resources. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Henry Cowell: Piano Music. Smithsonian Folkways, 1994.
Hicks, Michael. Henry Cowell: Bohemian. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Sachs, Joel. Henry Cowell: A Man made of Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Ives, Charles
Essays before a Sonata, The Majority, and Other Writings. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1999. Selected and edited by Howard Boatwright.
Memos. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1991. Edited by John Kirkpatrick.

Nancarrow, Conlon
Gann, Kyle. The Music of Conlon Nancarrow. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Studies for Player Piano: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Arch Recordings). Other Minds, 2008. Notes by Charles Amirkhanian.

Leo Ornstein
Broyles, Michael and Denise Von Glahn. Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Partch, Harry
Enclosure Two: Harry Partch.Innova Recordings / Minnesota Composers Forum, 1995. Notes by Philip Blackburn.
Genesis of a Music. New York: Da Capo Press, 1974.

(Penniman), Little Richard
White, Charles. The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock. New York: Harmony Books, 1984.

Pound, Ezra
Ezra Pound and Music: The Complete Criticism. New York: New Directions, 2008. Edited with commentary by R. Murray Schafer.

Ruggles, Carl
The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles. Other Minds, 2012. Notes by Michael Tilson Thomas and John Kirkpatrick with “About Ruggles” by Lou Harrison.
The Uncovered Ruggles. New World Records, 2005. Notes by Donald Berman.
Ziffrin, Marilyn. Carl Ruggles: Composer, Painter, and Storyteller. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Sun Ra
Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.
The Eternal Myth Revealed, Vol. 1: The Story of a Universal Being and His Music, covering 1914-1959. Transparency, 2012. Notes by Michael Anderson.

For more on Conlon Nancarrow, including links to music samples, see Nikolai Sadik-Ogli’s entry on Nancarrow’s 100th birthday celebration in Mustekala.