‘Please only use this piano by conventional keyboard playing’

Playing the piano with your forearm, plucking the strings, sawing through the piano: pianist Luk Vaes's doctoral dissertation covers all the techniques of play for which a piano is NOT designed. His defence ceremony will consist of three concerts and a public defence. 'Musicians were using the interior of their instruments 'as early as 1790.'

Making a glissando (or glide) over the piano keys as if you were gliding over the strings of a violin, producing so-called clusters on the keys with your fist or forearm, plucking the strings inside the piano, striking the piano strings, shortening a string with your finger while playing in order to create a higher note, sawing through a piano: these are all examples of extended piano techniques, the subject of Ghent pianist Luk Vaes' dissertation. Vaes: ‘I have shown that this is not some 20th century innovation, but that it has a much longer history; you can make beautiful music using these techniques and it doesn't have to damage the instrument, if you know what you're doing.'

Image: Luk Vaes is the first musician to obtain his doctorate through the docARTES programme (photo Mara Jong)

First musician to obtain docARTES PhD

He is the first musician to obtain his doctorate through the docARTES programme. This PhD track for musicians is a collaboration between Leiden University, the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, the Orpheus Institute in Ghent and the KU Leuven Association, which also includes the University College for Sciences and Arts and the Lemmens Institute. Musicians aiming to obtain a doctorate not only have to be able to produce an academic dissertation, they also have to be able to demonstrate in practice the effect their research has had on their musical performance.

Image: Earliest known piano glissando, in Christophe Moyreau’s 'Apollon vient les exterminer' (1753, image Luk Vaes)

Wealth of history

Vaes will be performing three concerts as part of his PhD, one with 18th and one with 20th century music and one with visual and prepared compositions. 'I also want to show the wealth of history. There is some beautiful music, much of which is still unknown.' As an example, he mentions composer Friedrich Wilhelm Rust, contemporary of Mozart and Haydn. ‘Rust's music that I will be playing on 18 December is on a par aesthetically with a piano sonata by Mozart.'  

17,000 musical scores

Vaes had never imagined that he would be digging deep into history and that he would study more than 17,000 musical scores dating from between 1700 and 2000.  'I thought this was a 20th century phenomenon, apart from the odd 18th century canon shot with the flat of the hand on the keys, better known as a cluster.' His research was originally motivated by practical considerations, and to some extent also by frustration. He played primarily 20th century avant garde music. The 50s and 60s were the era of the prepared piano, a term coined by John Cage. Bolts, fishing line, saws: composers shrank at nothing to get the desired effect from an instrument. 

Bolts and fishing line

‘Write down just exactly what you mean,' is the message that Luk Vaes would like to pass on to composers. 'You claim that your music isn't intended for eternity, but you ought to realise that in ten years time pianists will be tearing their hair out trying to fathom out what you mean.  What exactly is a fridge bolt? What should it weigh? John Cage is dead; we can't ring him and ask. And if we do call a particular composer, he or she often can't remember anyway. How should we make that one particular glissando? We simply don't know. This has been a structural problem in my own career.' In the course of his research, Vaes almost brought sales people in Brico, the Belgian DIY chain, and in specialist fishing shops to despair.  

Image: Photo of a box containing Cage's original equipment, as found by Vaes in the attic of a sculptor in New York. Each envelope contains just the right screw, bolt or other item to be able to insert between the strings of a key. The second photo is of such an item, in this case an elastic band that he used in the fifties.

Credit card

Vaes spent time in the US in the '90s studying young American composers. But he also found scores and a box belonging to Cage of objects for a prepared piano, which were highly enlightening. When he saw with his own eyes a plastic bridge prescribed by Cage, he immediately understood what this meant, and also that it couldn't be a kind of credit card, as had been suggested. 'This prompted me to share my knowledge with colleagues.'

Pianos on the concert stage

A further problem is that pianos on concert stages are almost never identical to the pianos available to composers. 'All the models are different. Just imagine the situatioan where you want to draw on a string, but you can't reach it. What do you do then?' In his dissertation he includes a summary of the thirty main models of piano found on European stages. The idea is to allow pianists to prepare themselves for stage performances.'

Musicologically, nothing to fall back on

To make sure he was speaking the truth, Vaes consulted notable music libraries to see whether he could find somewhere in the older literature a tone cluster or glissando. He found out, to his cost. 'I can now say with confidence that there isn't much that I missed.' The result is a weighty dissertation that has become something of a history of the piano. 'Musicologically, there was nothing to fall back on.'  

Image: The piano in Antwerp on which Luk Vaes is not allowed to play new music.  He will have to make do with an old wreck instead. 

Playing the kettle drum on piano strings

What really surprised him was the enormous creativity of the 18th century with its wealth of extended techniques. 'You can find clusters and glissandos as early as the 18th century. And I have identified two composers who played using the inside of the piano as early as 1790. By the end of the 18th century you see most basic techniques in tonal music. Friedrich Rust whom I mentioned earlier wrote tremolos on the strings, to imitate the kettle drum, and pizzicatos to imitate psalm books, and so on. But after this time the inside of the piano was not used again for the whole of the 19th century.' 

Cannon shots and thunderbolts

It was in the 18th century, when militant battle pieces were popular, that clusters became the rage: cannon shots for the piano and the organ, represented thunder in works about the Apocalyps.  ' After the time of Napoleon, clusters disappeared entirely from piano music, reappearing again in the 20th century, but then as waves on the sea, and as abstract sounds,' Vaes explains. It still appears in the literature on organ music, but then in a more worldly context, such as the storm that interrupts a pastoral idyll.’

Right hand

The glissando experienced a boom in the 19th century. 'It was during this period that finger techniques became highly developed. You get the powerful chords, the virtuosity of the right hand, you had to be heard above the orchestra. They were far too occupied with this to be able to think of other sounds. In the 20th century the question arose of how to move forward.'  

Image: An original caricature of American avant garde composerHenry Cowell (1897-1965) playing tone clusters.

‘Feed the piano with hay’

The culmination of the drive for experimentalism can be seen in the avant garde music of the 50s and 60s. Vaes: 'They tried everything; everything went; plucking a string was just as good as using the keys. There were also the music theatre pieces, with such instructions as: 'Feed the piano with hay', 'Take it apart', or as in the work Silence by Cage: 'Do nothing.' The 70s saw a more well-considered use of tone. After this it became public property. Everyone prescribes something at some point, the techniques have become second nature.' 

Typex on the strings

Extended techniques do not have a particularly good reputation. They are often regarded as tangents taken by composers who didn't know what else to do. But piano tuners in the concert halls were not happy with this development. In some ways they were right and in others not, according to Vaes, who is also inclined to defend these unusual creative and artistic expressions. 'When I play new music in the international arts centre De Singel in Antwerp, there are three pianos, but I always get the old wreck. One of the other instruments bears a neat inscription, in two languages: 'Please only use this piano by conventional keyboard playing.' Indeed, you shouldn't put typex on the strings to mark where you have to place your fingers, nor should you put fluorescent stickers on the dampers. When you remove them, you disturb the balance. But if you take care, there's no need to damage anything. And, moreover, we know very little about how extended techniques were regarded in earlier centuries. It's a subject it would be interesting to know more about.' 


Does a musician approach this kind of research differently from a musicologist? Vaes: 'A musicologist has a different perspective. How do you know whether or not something is a glissando? The word only came into use in 1820. Sometimes, in the case of Beethoven, for example, you make deductions based on the placement of the fingers, but in most cases there are no explanations. Then you have to try to base your deductions on such aspects as speed and playability. We often see difficulties which go unnoticed by musicologists. But the main thing is that we can complement one another.' 

Luk Vaes, Extended piano techniques in theory, history and performance practice. Public doctoral defence Tuesday 22 December, Leiden University. Supervisor: Professor Frans de Ruiter.


Early Treasures
18 December, 20.00 hrs Koninklijk Conservatorium, Juliana van Stolberglaan 1, Den Haag works for the piano, organ, harpsichord and clavichord by Balbastre, Corette, Beethoven, Haydn, Clementi, Moyreau, Rust and Wernicke

The Age of the Extended Piano
20 December, 20.30 hrs, Scheltema, Marktsteeg 1, Leiden
Chamber music by Rebikov, Cowell, Brown, Crumb, Lachenmann, Rzewski

The Prepared Piano and Instrumental Theatre
21 December 21.00 hrs, Korzo 5 hoog, Binckhorstlaan 36, Den Haag staged and choreographed workd by Delage, Satie, Cage/Fort, Cage/Cunningham, Kagel, Mosconi

22 December, 16.15 hrs Academy Building, Rapenburg 73, Leiden public defence of doctoral dissertation

Admission to the concerts is free, but please register inview of the limited capacity (r.wouda@koncon.nl). This also applies for attending the doctoral defence on 22 December. 


Earlier articles in the University Newsletter

(8 December 2009)

Last Modified: 10-12-2009