In 1948 Cage composed his Suite for Toy Piano. Cage himself played the first performance, accompanying choreography titled Diversion by Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College. The occasion brought forth the first example of a serious piece of music written for the toy piano.
The toy piano is actually little more than a repackaged glockenspiel. Unlike a real piano’s mechanism with many highly calibrated moving parts, the toy piano’s action is rudimentary: plastic hammers attached to piano keys strike metal rods when the keys are played. These instruments come in a variety
of sizes (the largest spanning three octaves, or 37 keys). Cage envisioned significant possibilities for the toy piano, exploiting to the fullest its limited capacity for nuance and dynamics.
Perhaps today’s leading champion of the toy piano is Margaret Leng Tan, who worked closely with Cage on his music for that instrument (as well as on his prepared piano compositions). Ms. Tan has observed that Cage, and those who followed him, “were spurred on to unexpected heights of creative frenzy, because this was such a new and exciting challenge.” New York Times critic Edward Rothstein points out that in these works, Cage “was undermining and overturning all the expectations of the musical tradition.”
Following his 1948 Suite, Cage continued to compose for the toy piano, even going to far as to write music for an ensemble of amplified toy pianos. Inspired by his example, many other composers have contributed to the toy piano repertoire.