Sinister Resonance (1930)
Sinister Resonance is one of many works by Cowell, along with Aeolian Harp, The Banshee and The Fairy Bells, that uses the inside of the piano. 1 In Sinister Resonance, Cowell gives the performer five different "methods" for playing the work, all of which require the use of the inside of the piano. Each method is described below and Cowell summarizes the work saying, "In Sinister Resonance...one has stop tones at the very beginning on the low strings. Then later on, one mutes the strings at the bridge so that the tone can't go through the bridge and back again, and this produces a tone quality which has its own special values and thirdly, harmonics are produced by touching the strings very lightly a quarter of the way through just as one might produce a harmonic on a violin and all of these things produce a set of tone colors impossible to obtain in any other fashion." 2
Sinister Resonance, only a page in length, includes a second page, labeled "Directions for Performance," discussing the five different methods required for playing the piece. Method (1) asks the performer to press hard on the lowest string on the piano and then press the matching key, resulting in a different pitch than written. This differs from the method for producing a harmonic. When producing a harmonic, one only needs to touch a string lightly to produce the desired pitch. Also keep in mind that when producing harmonics, the pitches produced are members of the overtone series for the corresponding key. For example, if you want to produce harmonics on the string of the pitch “middle C,” those easiest to produce are pitches such as the C above middle C, the 1st partial, and the G an octave and a fifth above middle C, the 2nd partial of the corresponding pitch on the key “middle C.” In Cowell’s method (1), you must press as firmly as possible to obtain a series of diatonic pitches from the key of F minor, not partials of the lowest note A. These diatonic pitches are only possible by firmly pressing on the string and these sorts of diatonic pitches are not available on most of the other keyboard strings.
Someone familiar with playing harmonics will tend to want to listen for those overtone intervals from the string (an octave about the fundamental, an octave and a fifth above the fundamental, etc...). Resist the urge to do so and listen for the specific pitches Cowell notates. This effect works best on a grand piano, the bigger the better. The audio excerpts on this page were recorded on a nine-foot Steinway. I have been able to produce method (1) on a piano as small as a five-foot grand, but the ability to do so will depend on the particular piano and how hard you are willing to press on the strings! (AUDIO)
Method (5) is simply the standard notation for harmonics. To produce the desired pitch, one mutes the string at a certain length, determined and marked in advance. (For more information on “preparing” the piano, see below). In this case, when the corresponding key is depressed, the pitch sounded should be an octave above the given pitch. (AUDIO)
In methods (2) and (4), one is to press a hand on the strings, behind the bridge, so that the sound is muted. (2) is very muted, i.e. closer to the bridge, and (4) is less muted, i.e. further away from the bridge. These methods do not affect pitch; they only change the timbre of the sound.
Method (3) is problematic. Cowell explains that in method (3), "The same method [is applied] as No. 1, except that it is applied on the F string just one octave below the written tones F . [The written tones] are obtained by cutting the F string off just in the middle for the first tone; the succeeding tones are obtained by shifting the finger along the same F string toward the performer for the higher tones." 3 As notated, this method does not work. The string is too thin to produce the diatonic pitches that the lowest A string is able to make in method (1).
What does Cowell mean? One could attempt the exact same method as (1), and use the lowest A string. This could produce the desired pitches, but they would be in a different register. Unfortunately, Cowell goes on to say that, "...the written tones are the ones which must be sounded" meaning that registral substitutions are not allowed. 4 As we will see later, Cowell does allow for registral differences in some instances.
There are several recordings of the piece. Sorrel Hays' recording of 1977 takes Cowell's instructions to heart. Although she does not produce the desired pitches, she plays in the method described. Instead of creating the written F minor melody, she produces the various overtone pitches that would be expected while running a finger along the F string in that register. (AUDIO)
There is a recording of Cowell playing this piece. For method (3), he simply produces the written pitches as harmonics, using the strings an octave below the given pitches to produce the sounds. It should be mentioned however, that on this album Cowell takes liberties with many of his scores. For example, entire pages are missing in his version of Advertisement. In Sinister Resonance, many of the notes are altered; most notably, the C-flats are frequently C naturals. (AUDIO)
Chris Burn's recording of 1993 (and my recent recording) follow Cowell’s example and also use the harmonic method. However, I also had the idea of producing the harmonics by pressing on strings other than those an octave below the given pitches. The most successful were found on strings an octave and a seventh below the desired pitches (G, A, B-flat, C, D). I cannot say if Cowell would approve, but as his instructions really give us very little to go on, and as he seems to be very free with his notation, I cannot help but wonder if he wouldn't welcome the possibility. (AUDIO)
***Update from Lukas Mayer, a student at the University of Vienna: “…The problematic method (3) was also problematic for me [but I]t worked very well on a boesendorfer piano by pressing very strong and pointed with the finger against the strings by hitting the key strongly too…I didn't use the same method as it is written in the performance-directions from cowell, but by sweeping one finger along the same string (I used the f'-string) and producing the written tones. I started on almost the end of the string near the bridge to get the first f and moved toward the dampers. The c is then 1/3 string-length away from the bridge. I pressed very hard against the strings not to play harmonics.”
Cowell understands that the inner make up of pianos differs. He writes, "...it is always permissible to make such adjustments in the work as may be necessary. It is almost always possible to perform by transposing certain passages to another octave. The sustaining open fifths may be performed an octave lower than written if impractical in the indicated register. 5
Cowell is one of the few composers I have come across who makes accommodations for different makes of pianos. Often the metal bar inside the piano can make reaching certain strings impossible. With Sinister Resonance, composers can learn an important lesson from Cowell. At the very least, when composing works for piano, be sure to try the extended techniques on a variety of instruments.
Most of Cowell’s methods in Sinister Resonance require some sort of preparations inside the piano. To help assure any concerned parties that you are not “hurting” the piano, try the following suggestions:
2. I use tape to mark the strings for methods (1), (3) and (5). Use a tape that does not leave residue. (If you are doing an online search for tape, look for “no residue” not “non-residue” as this will lead you into the world of “hair tape.”)
Right now I’m using, “Scotch Decorate and Repair Tape.” It’s a good, pliant, no-residue tape. It is also called “plastic tape.”
A piano technician also recommended I try an architect tape like paper masking tape. This is the sort of tape that peels easily off of paper, and is typically available at art stores.
AVOID – standard transparent adhesive tape, industrial duct tape, medical tape, among others. These are sticky or easily fall into the keyboard.
3. I have also used the Post-it tabs for marking methods (1) and (5). The flags work well to mark the side of the piano, but if you use them inside the strings, I would put them on the node at the end of the string. They are not the most adhesive, but they are easy to see.
4. Lastly, I put chalk on my fingers, because the stickiness of my hands often sticks to the tape, making extra sounds when I release from the string. Some will argue that the chalk corrodes the strings and I agree that constantly “chalking” the strings to mark harmonics can have a negative effect. However, this is a small amount of chalk simply applied to fingers and for the most part, not even touching the strings, but rather the tape applied to the strings.
5. Sometimes, you have to be creative. On the piano I used, I was able to successfully transpose most of the bass clef passages up one octave, as they did not work as notated. However, the E-flat in m. 40 was on the wrong side of the bar. I experimented with putting putty on the string, closer to the pegs at the end of the string (opposite the keyboard) and found a place that produced a sound similar to the muted quality required in method (2).
Overall, Cowell gives the performer a lot of liberty. He allows for registral changes and gives a Slow, with rhythmic freedom tempo marking. Sinister Resonance is a great piece to use to acquaint oneself with inside of the piano. With its various “methods,” the work can help to tune the ear of a pianist and give a crash course on the inner workings of the instrument.
1. For a complete list of Cowell's works that use the inside of the piano see, William Lichtenwanger, The Music of Henry Cowell: A Descriptive Catalog (Brooklyn, NY: Institute of Studies in American Music Monographs: Number 23), 359.