The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: A Tale of Two Liszt’s — Electronic piano installation is a tribute to the conflicts of the famous composer-piano virtuoso and will be on display at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this Thursday and Friday

November 6, 2011
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

In this bicentennial year of Franz Liszt (his 200th birthday was Oct. 22), there will be a lot of tributes locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

But few promise to be as contemporary, provocative and fascinating as an electronic installation by piano professor Todd Welbourne (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) in the lobby of Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin School of Music in Madison. It aims to capture the conflicted ambivalence at the heart of Liszt’s legacy.

And its appearance is well timed.

It will be unveiled on the same night the UW piano virtuoso Christopher Taylor (below) performs a FREE solo recital at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on this Thursday night. (Taylor’s eclectic program includes Liszt’s Six “Paganini” Etudes as well as Brahms’ Piano Pieces, Op. 76, Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 119, Derek Bermel’s “Turning” and “Winnsboro Cotton Mills Blues” by Frederic Rzewski.)

Welbourne’s unusual, incisive and thought-provoking installation will be “on view” – that is, active – from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10, and then again from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11, in the lobby of Mills Hall.

He will use to use the little balcony looking down on the lobby to position the camera above the piano.  He got a one-month summer grant from WARF (Wisconsin Alumni Research Fund) to do this. He says materials cost around $1,500 but that figure does not include the labor.

I asked Welbourne, who is also the head of graduate studies at the UW School of Music, to discuss his Liszt installation. He sent the following notes and pictures to be posted:


“This bicentennial tribute to Franz Liszt (1811-1886) attempts to capture the inner conflict of this great 19th century artist using 21st century music technology.

“During his lifetime Liszt (below, as a young man) enjoyed a level of fame as a musician which today can only be compared to certain “rock stars”.  This was due in large part to his magnetic stage presence and his virtuosic “wizardry” at the keyboard.  He would amaze and delight his audiences with amazing scalar passage work and fancy figuration, using many tricks of his own invention.

“At the same time he yearned to be accepted as an artist and composer of originality and substance.  Among the many who chastised him for his “philistine” tendencies were his contemporaries Robert Schumann and Frederick Chopin. It was as if he were continually “seduced” by the “dark side” of vapid technical display even while desiring to produce works of true depth.

“This installation tries to capture that conflict using a Yamaha Disklavier fitted as an EMPP (electro-magnetically prepared piano). The EMPP consists of twelve electro-magnets suspended just above the center strings of the piano (below).  Sounds — piano recordings, computer-generated frequencies or recorded speech — are fed into the magnets just as they would be to loudspeakers. But in this case the magnets do not vibrate speaker cones, but instead try to find corresponding sympathetic vibrations or resonant frequencies in the strings of the piano.

“The result is a “filtered” sound that seems disembodied yet recognizable. This represents the genuinely creative and original side of Liszt.

“These sounds are often overwhelmed by the sounds of the Disklavier playing snippets of Liszt’s virtuosic trickery that are triggered by a motion-detector camera suspended above the piano.  There are seven different regions that trigger these passages.  These sounds represent the “showman” side of Liszt and are meant to be a distraction.

“If those standing around the instrument stay very still they will soon be able to hear the “inner” Liszt emerge from the sound.  It is important to note that all the sounds you hear come entirely from the piano strings — there are no speakers anywhere in the setup.

“The third part of the exhibit consists of an 8-minute slide show of Liszt iconography, including photos, towards the end, of the house in Nohant, France, where Liszt (below, in later years) and Chopin “hung out” with Aurore Dudevant (aka writer Georges Sand), and at the very end Liszt’s villa in Weimar, Germany.

“Midway through there is passage by French writer Étienne de Sénancour that Liszt included with his publication of his piano work “Years of Pilgrimage.” The EMPP piano tries to “speak” first the French and then the English translation:

Que veux-je? que suis-je? que demander à la
nature? … Toute cause est invisible, toute fin
trompeuse; toute forme change, toute durée
s’épuise: …je sens, j’existe pour me consumer
en désirs indomptables, pour m’abreuver de
la séduction d’une monde fantastique, pour
rester atterré de sa voluptueuse erreur.

(What do I want? what am I? what should I ask
of nature? All cause is invisible, all goals
illusory; all form changes, all that seems
permanent fades…. I feel I exist only to taste
untamable desires, to drink of the fantastically
seductive world, and remain dumbstruck
at nature’s voluptuous error.)

“I would like to thank the Wisconsin Alumni Research Fund, Peter Dettmer and the Madison Area Technical College metal shop for help with putting the EMPP together, and Oliver Ebert for invaluable help with the electronic components of the EMPP.

Go see it and hear it, and let all of us know what you think.

Posted in Classical music

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