Watch a Surprisingly Moving Performance of John Cage’s 1948 “Suite for Toy Piano”

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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Cage Plays Ampli­fied Cac­ti and Plant Mate­ri­als with a Feath­er (1984)

John Cage Unbound: A New Dig­i­tal Archive Pre­sent­ed by The New York Pub­lic Library

John Cage Per­forms Water Walk on “I’ve Got a Secret” (1960)

The Con­tro­ver­sial Sounds of Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″ Per­formed by the BBC Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra

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