Piano clusters: How to frighten the old ladies of both sexes

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 24.06.2017


I was flipping through my copy of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 recently and spotted his two “col pugno” markings. My memory took me back many years to the day I first encountered these violent directions. At the time, I didn’t know what to think. Measure 143 calls for the pianist to bang “with fist” on the four-note cluster chord. Prokofiev later said he wanted to “frighten the old ladies in the audience”.

It probably worked for him. In 1940, the year his sonata was published, the people of Moscow and Leningrad were already frightened. The Germans were everywhere, and they had guns. But now they are gone and we are accustomed to dissonance and percussive shocks from modern music, so these clusters are taken for granted.

Defined as simultaneous playing of at least three adjacent semitone notes, clusters turn up regularly in jazz and contemporary compositions so often as to attract little notice today.

It was not always thus. Charles Ives in 1915 amused himself with the aim of creating a stir in his Concord Sonata. The second movement, Hawthorne, makes innovative use of chord clusters, among other shocking techniques, to suggest “fantastical adventures into phantasmal realms”. Musicologist Joseph Machlis noted that “never before did piano music look like this”:


New York area pianist Jack Kohl reminds me that these clusters are too broad for the human hand, and so while studying the Concord himself, his father built a felt-padded strip of wood for him to depress black keys, then white keys, to achieve Ives’ effects. Some pianists just use the forearm.  Kohl notes that various composers have created “an entire subset of clustering” in which the width is wider than the hand.

Another subset fits the palm of the hand – a technique introduced by Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin and widely applied by jazz pianists including the late Thelonius Monk.

Machlis continued with a technical explanation: “These (Concord) pianissimo chords are tone clusters designed to release the overtones and sympathetic vibrations of the piano strings… (The) floating columns of sounds are used as a source of sonic enchantment rather than as functional harmonic entities.”

What Machlis does not mention is that Ives intended to frighten “the old ladies of both sexes”. (He borrowed that wonderful metaphor from Charles Darwin, who had hoped for the same impact from his 1859 “On The Origin of Species”.)

Musicians today argue over the role of the cluster. Is it merely, as one musicologist opined, merely “an extra-harmonic clump of notes”? Obviously not. The avant-garde, going back to Henry Cowell and Leo Ornstein, used it to great effect. Bartok and John Cage understood its power. Indeed, the history of 20th century music shows how clusters progressively found their home.

Frederic Rzewski’s Cotton Mill Blues calls for right and left palm hammering on black and white keys alternatively to create powerful cotton mill mechanical effects. A roll-call of great contemporary composers loved the clusters. Pianist Ivan Ilic lists for me the principals as Sorabji, Messiaen, Louvier,  Xenakis, Ligeti, Stockhausen and the recently departed Finnish composer Rautavaara.

As Americans toyed with clusters, European composers were also experimenting with them. Isaac Albeniz tried them out in Iberia, and this success is thought to have inspired Gabriel Fauré to include his own clusters. In the 1930s, Henry Cowell’s student Lou Harrison worked clusters into his Prelude for Grandpiano.

And the ultimate experimenter, John Cage – another Cowell protégé – applied cluster chords in his work, notably in the 1941 composition “In the Name of the Holocaust”, titled as a nod to James Joyce’s “In the Name of the Holy Ghost”. Analysts detect chromatic, diatonic and pentatonic clusters in that monumental piece for Cage’s revolutionary prepared piano.


 

But it was Mauricio Kagel who noted the clusters are often used as “a kind of anti-harmony, a transition between sound and noise.” He may have been wrong about that but he rightly says that clusters “lend themselves to use in a percussive manner”.

And yet even Kagel seems limited in his appreciation. German composer Boris Bergmann tells me he likes to use clusters in his compositions, just fingered clusters, “not the fist … yet”. He finds that clusters can produce a harmonic quality, which functions like an acoustic kaleidoscope. “The change of a single note can alter the whole spectrum and emotional quality of the multichord”. He says he likes to use clusters to “contrast harmonically clear passages or as transitions from concrete to more abstract expression”.

Clusters are largely limited to instruments or groupings of instruments that can produce at least three notes simultaneously. After the piano, this leaves the human voice in choir mode. One of the most moving choral pieces that blends semitones into a giant tone cluster is R. Murray Schafer’s Epitaph for Moonlight. This clip, from the choir of American River College, Sacramento, California, includes an interesting introduction and a display of the original notation from the Schafer score. The music starts at 1:50.



Sometimes the cluster can lead a pianist to attack the keyboard rather than play it. While pianos are remarkably robust instruments, it doesn’t take a Franz Liszt to break it. Here an American musician best known for his mastery of the harp takes on a concert grand toe-to-toe. The piano loses. Note the cluster chord at 1:23.



 

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