The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A two-day FREE and PUBLIC mini-festival at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this Friday and Saturday will explore the electronically-enhanced Disklavier and music and videos that have been written for it.

March 5, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

University schools of music are often accused being too tradition-bound.

But that is less the case at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

New music often gets performed there, thanks to a couple of well-know faculty composers (Stephen Dembski and Laura Schwendinger) and the UW Contemporary Chamber Music Ensemble as well as many faculty members and undergraduate and graduate students who focus on, study and perform new music.

And now there is also a push to study and increase awareness of new instruments.

In this case, the object of study is the Disklavier.

Disklavier Player

Piano professor Todd Welbourne, who is now the director of graduate studies at the UW School of Music, has always been interested in modern and contemporary music and in interactive media, including an installation he did to mark the bicentennial of Franz Liszt. To read about that event, use this link:

Now Welbourne has arranged a two-day Disklavier festival that will take place this Friday and Saturday afternoon and night. All events are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Welbourne (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) recently spoke via email to The Ear about upcoming festival:

Todd Welbourne by Katrin Talbot

What is a Disklavier and what advantages does it have? Why focus on it rather than the traditional piano?

A “Disklavier” is normal acoustic piano (grand or upright) that has a sensory system added to capture the movements of the hammers as they strike the strings. The system does not affect or interfere with the operation or sound of the piano.

Disklavier grand

The movements are recorded and the information can then be used to reverse the process and cause the piano to play back exactly what was previously recorded much the way a “player piano” records and replays by means of a piano roll.

Instead of a roll of paper, though, the information is recorded in a computer language called MIDI.  Technically, then, a Disklavier is a “MIDI-piano.” The Disklavier, made by Yahama, is simply a brand name that has become a “proprietary eponym” basically through market domination.

The MIDI information can be used not only to reproduce sound but, in conjunction with a computer and additional software, can also be used to trigger events outside the instrument. These include images on a screen, and other sounds for example from a separate synthesizer or computer-generated sounds.

What is Disklavier Fest and why is it being held at the UW-Madison School of Music? Will it become an annual tradition here?

It’s part of our annual Guest Artist Series, which is always a good opportunity to bring in artists that are doing new and interesting things. But it is definitely a one-time event.

Who are the guest artists and why were they chosen? 

The guests are Daniel Koppelman (below top) from Furman University in South Carolina, and Jaroslaw Kapuscinski (below bottom) from Stanford University.

I had met them at various New Music Conferences around the country and liked their work and wanted them to share their work with our students, faculty and interested community members.


Jaroslaw Kapuscinski

What events or programs will take place, and what music will be played?

There are two concerts and two “info-sessions”: on Friday, March 8, and Saturday, March 9.  Info-sessions are at 3 p.m. in Room 2411 of the Mosse Humanities Building at 455 North Park Street in Madison; and concerts are both at 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall.

Friday night’s program by Koppelman is all sound and includes: “Gestural” (2012) by Christopher Dobrian (b. 1959); “Nocturne Fragments” by Benjamin Broening (b. 1963) (Mercurial; Flexible, mysterious, resonant; Gentle, tolling); “A Case of You” (1970) by Joni Mitchell (below, b. 1943); Sonatina (1941) by Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) (Presto, Moderato, Allegro molto; INTERMISSION; “digitalisman’ by Daniel Koppelman (b. 1957); “Chips of Chiseled Clouds” (2013) by D. Koppelman; and “Upon Reflection” (2012) by C. Dobrian.

Joni Mitchell 1

Saturday night’s program is all multi-media and employs visual elements.

It will include: “Mondrian Variations” – video [10 min.] — Inspired by musical variation form, the video transforms, deconstructs and reconstructs five  paintings by the 20th century Dutch artist Piet Mondrian in three movements: Moderato, Lento and Boogie-Woogie (Below is Mondrian’s famous painting “Broadway Boogie-Woogie”); “Oli’s Dream” (in collaboration with Camille Norton) [7 minutes.] …a dream in which a piano becomes a typewriter and in which a typewriter becomes a piano. “Oli’s Dream” is therefore an experiment in synesthesia, an attempt to fuse the temporal modes of music with the spatial and temporal domains of words.; “Juicy” (in collaboration with John Edmark) [10 minutes] — a six-movement suite, which fuses images of fruits with live piano music.

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian

Also included is “Where is Chopin?” [31 minutes], …a performance/installation, in which an original composition based on Frederic Chopin‘s 24 Preludes (Op. 28) is played on the Disklavier piano and controls a multi-channel video projection showing rapt listeners. The images are a search for traces of Chopin’s music in minds and faces of people from around the world.

To carry out this project, Kapuscinski performed a series of personal interviews with over 150 volunteers in selected cities in countries where Chopin (below) is hugely popular but where he personally never set foot (Tokyo, San Francisco, Wellington, Sydney, Seoul, Beijing, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Helsinki, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Mexico City).


During these interviews Kapuscinski performed Chopin’s preludes and discussed them with the listeners while camera operators and photographers documented the emotional reactions.

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