At some point during his 1948 mania for the Rube Goldberg pieces of prepared pianos, John Cage, inspired by minimalist French composer Erik Satie, decided to turn back to melody for a moment. Still building with a dull percussive tonal palate, he wrote solely for the keyboard this time… of a toy piano. “Suite for Toy Piano” consists of five short movements, none over two minutes. Cage liked the abrasive chiming and limited range of the instrument.
The piece can be mechanical or structurally immersive, depending on the player. In the performance above, Portuguese pianist Joana Gama achieves the latter effect, imbuing the composition with dynamic energy many other renditions lack, though I do not know whether Cage intended a flat affect. In any case, he tended to appreciate improvisatory takes on his work at all times, so he wouldn’t have been bothered.
The surrounding audience—shuffling, whispering, wheezing—only add to Gama’s intensity. The event marked the 2011 opening of the Centre for Art and Architecture Affairs in Guimarães, Portugal.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness