On the evening of Sunday, April 28, 1940, the Cornish School's (710 East Roy) first African American student, Syvilla Fort (1917-1975), performs a recital at Seattle's Repertory Playhouse (4045 University Way NE) with musical accompaniment, in part, by John Cage (1912-1992). Fort will go on to a major dance career -- one in which she is acknowledged as a leader of the Afro-Modern dance realm -- and Cage will further his reputation as a brilliant eccentric by introducing his mind-boggling "prepared piano" to the public that night.
Song & Dance
A Seattle native and Roosevelt High School grad, Fort was a rising star who on this night would perform several numbers accompanied by two musicians, Frances Chatters Brook and avante-garde experimentalist John Cage. Cage had originally been hired by Nellie C. Cornish (1876-1956) in September 1938, as a pianist to work with her school's dance department. Before long, Cage had unveiled the first of his endless musical surprises: He organized America's first all-percussion orchestra and arranged strange new compositions for them to perform.
For Fort's recital, Cage penned a couple of new songs that she performed to -- "Spiritual" and "Bacchanale." That latter song was his very first to feature his new invention, the "prepared piano" -- a contraption necessitated by a dilemma Cage faced: The Playhouse didn't have enough space for his four-to-eight person percussion orchestra and its growing collection of instruments.
A Well-Prepared Piano
Wanting there to be a percussive element to this music, Cage had a brainstorm: what if he were to access the interior of a standard acoustic piano and insert a few objects as dampers between its many strings? What kind of potentially interesting sounds might that produce?
Well, a Seattle audience was about to hear the answer to those questions. The result of playing a piano altered and augmented by a crazy array of added items -- "nine screws, eight bolts, two nuts and three strips of leather, acting as mutes were placed between strings pertaining to eighteen keys" (Dunn) -- was a form of atonal music lacking precise pitch. But, it did offer open-minded listeners a unique experience of hearing some normal piano tones interspersed with pings, plunks, and occasional thuds. Critics didn't seem quite capable of fully appreciating the odd history they had just witnessed, but they didn't condemn Cage's radical presentation either: The Seattle Times described "Bacchanale" as being "breathtaking in its speed and rhythm as well as unusual in its piano accompaniment."
A review published the following week in the The Northwest Enterprise heaped praise upon Fort and also mentioned that Cage's "fascinating music for Baccanale and his moving Spiritual composition were intensely interesting in their own right." Interesting indeed: Cage would continue developing his "prepared piano" -- performing "Bacchanale" again at Cornish Theatre on June 5, 1940, and writing much more music (which included charts of exactly which objects to insert between which strings) for the instrument. In 1949 the National Academy of Arts and Letters would award him a $1,000 prize for his invention.