#4, Prepared Instruments

Most instruments (like other artistic tools) are approached in a similar manner. You’ve got strings, percussion, brass & woodwind, electronic, and a whole manner of other acoustic approaches to music, spanning hundreds of cultures. Despite a lot of these instruments producing a different timbre, the approach is largely the same.

That’s where ‘prepared instruments’ come in. It’s somewhat of a vague term, and can (potentially) include various other things like circuit-bending and DIY electronics. I won’t focus on those now, since they deserve their own piece altogether. Instead, I’ll focus on a more ‘traditional’ approach to prepared instruments.

Pioneered by avant-garde artists in the mid 1900’s, prepared instruments were a way to see what else can be done with the standard setup of a piano, guitar, and various other instruments. Due to it’s open-ended nature, any instrument can technically be ‘prepared’, though I’ll mostly talk about the more popular examples (piano, guitar, and percussion).

One of the most popular examples is the placement of screws & bolts in a piano, done by John Cage (the artist being most well known for his piece ‘4:33’). This results in strange harmonics and metallic sounds brought out by the acoustics of the piano itself.

There are also options for modifying the piano to create a different timbre of sounds. One of these is a ‘palm muting’ modification, which places felt over the strings, much like placing your palm over the strings of a guitar. This can create very ethereal and quiet timbres that ring out in the body of a grand piano to create a full sound. A similar technique of dampening the piano with a thin piece of fabric (sometimes an old t-shirt) is used widely by Neo-classical pianists and ambient artists.

Similarly, a guitar can be ‘prepared’ by placing objects in between the strings and frets (or pickups, for electric guitars). Altering the sound to dull it (like placing fabric or wool over a pickup), or adding harmonics and various metallic & some more ‘alien’ sounds (like placing paper clips over the strings and/or frets, or adding small metal cymbals under the strings).

This could even be stretched out to the use of effects, and elements not directly related to the instrument. From DIY approaches such as slashing amp cabinets (such as in the 40’s and 50’s) in order to get a natural form of distortion, or more commercial versions like what Chase Bliss does with pedals. These can be seen as elements of a prepared instrument, even if they are more commonly used as accoutrements to instruments.

Additionally, percussion is such a broad range of instruments. From rock kits, to timpani’s, even through to a cajon, djembe, even a kalimba (which is technically a percussive instrument). Various artists have ‘prepared’ percussion instruments with various techniques of altering the sound. You’ve likely seen a snare with a wallet on it, or a rag over top. Others have cut specific slices in the drum skin (usually the underside, for obvious reasons) to create various alterations in the tone, or to alter the sustain. The last example being strikingly similar to the previously mentioned approach to guitar distortion.

It can easily devolve into a discussion of what is or isn’t an instrument, and seeing noise & ambient musicians play full sets with a table of guitar pedals and a broken mixer brings that even further into question. Despite all of that, prepared instruments are great at changing the fundamental sound of the instrument using some kind of physical alteration. Even further, challenging what the instrument can do.

An example of some kind of prepared instrument, though a loose definition, is Nils Frahm’s piece ‘Toilet Brushes – More’ where he hits the piano strings in a percussive manner using… Toilet brushes. This piece (along with others, all listed at the bottom) highlights the wide options when a standard acoustic or electric instrument is met with fresh eyes.

Briefly, I want to touch on circuit bending, though I’d much prefer to delve into it fully in its own piece, as it’s comprehensive and interesting enough.

Circuit bending is almost the electronic solution to prepared instruments. Old analog synthesizers, radios, Dictaphones, and many more electric devices, can have their circuitry tampered with to produce weird sounds. Some synthesizers can change their sounds using filters, external sequencers, and connecting them to other pieces of equipment.

It can even spread into tape loops, which I’m sure will get its own piece as well, seeing as it inspired many ambient musicians (myself included) and offered a unique way of looking at the musical world around us. Ultimately, that’s the goal of prepared instruments.

This can even spread to certain recording techniques for music. Some speakers, with weak impedance, can be used as microphones by altering the internal cabling.

Unfortunately, I barely have a definition of what a ‘prepared instrument’ is. It can comprise so many elements, and any clear definition offers too many limitations.

The whole goal of this approach to music, just like these pieces of writing, is to shed light on the alternative perspectives and approaches to creativity. To understand that it’s all malleable and open-ended. To define is to limit.

Listed below are some pieces that are more popular as traditional ‘prepared instrument’ pieces.

Prepared Guitar Improvisation by DAFAKE

Sonata V by John Cage

Bacchanale by John Cage

Toilet Brushes – More by Nils Frahm

Palm-muted piano demo by Nils Frahm