What the Heck Is Prepared Electric Piano?
What the heck is “prepared electric piano?” Eric Glick Rieman actually responded to that question when I’d posed it on this blog a while back, with an answer that told me that 1) the question wasn’t all that dumb, and 2) I had never thought about how electric piano worked.
Knowing that Rieman built the prepared electric piano himself made me feel better about not knowing the answer. And I finally got to see the thing in action earlier this month at the Luggage Store Gallery, where Rieman improvised some duets with cellist Theresa Wong.
Here’s what was throwing me. Prepared acoustic piano is pretty easy to understand: You take an object (wooden blocks work great) and put it onto the strings of a piano. This mutes the strings, creating a clicky percussive sound. Guitarists can do something similar with the palms of their right hands: they kill the reverb and create something percussive.
But with electric piano, there are no strings. In fact, having grown up digitally, I’m accustomed to the sound coming from solid-state elements (semiconductors), with no physical object to manipulate.
What I wasn’t considering was that electric piano is an old concept, and being such, it’s actually based on physical concepts just like the piano. Glockenspiel might even be a closer relative. An electric piano’s sound comes from metal bars, like tuning forks, that resonate when struck by the keys.
Knowing that, it’s a simple mental step to use something to block those bars just like you would a prepared electric piano.
Rieman’s instrument, then, is a normal, working electric piano — he even played me some non-prepared sounds to prove it — that’s been dissected, its guts exposed to the world. That leaves Rieman free to mess with the sound, but he doesn’t just use wooden blocks.
His is an electrified electric piano. Rieman puts pickups and contact mics on the instrument’s surface, so that pretty much anything he touches gets sent out as a sound. In the picture to the right, you can see the electric piano with its top removed, exposing the tines. To the left are the mixing board and effects boxes Rieman uses to adjust the sound.
One limitation is that the bare sound of Rieman slapping and thumping the instrument can actually overwhelm the amplified sounds that you’re supposed to be hearing. It was advantageous, then, that Rieman insisted on letting the crowd wander the Luggage Store during his set with Wong. They’d played one short improvisation, and Rieman told us the the audience/performer hierarchy wasn’t exactly giving him the warm fuzzies. So, we wandered, most of us starting on Rieman’s side to get an up-close view of the prepared electric piano. Later, I found myself moving away, trying to hear more of the amplified sound for a “purer” view of the music.
Rieman played kinetically, with lots of finger tapping and palm thumping to trigger the contact mics. Wong often contrasted this with long or skittery tones from both the cello and her voice, adding a shade of mystery.
What you’re not seeing in my pictures is the stand that held up the instrument. It looked like a short four-legged stand that was placed on top of four other legs, held together by little more than a prayer to the balance gods. I figured it was sturdy and that that’s just how it always looked, but after the show, Rieman glanced at it and made a comment along the lines of, “Whoa, that’s not good!”
Ann O’Rourke has posted a good video of the Luggage Store performance — starting from the beginning, then cutting to the time we were invited to wander the stage. You’ll hear some high-pitched singing in there, which is Wong rhapsodizing along with her cello.
For more about Rieman, check out this interview by Dan Godston of Experimental Arts Examiner.