The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What’s the point of the new “Hyperpiano” if it just mars the music, frustrates the performer and alienates the audience? | November 3, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Like everyone in the almost sold-out house at Mills Hall last Friday night, The Ear went to hear the wonderfully gifted UW-Madison piano virtuoso Christopher Taylor unveil his new hi-tech invention: the so-called “Hyperpiano.”

Taylor (below) patiently explained in detail how the hybrid electronic-acoustic piano was conceived and developed, and then how it worked.

Here is a link to two stories with detailed background:

https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/christopher-taylor-to-debut-new-piano/

Hyperpiano explaining

But at the risk of hurting the feelings of the brilliant and personable Taylor, The Ear has to confess: He left the event – more an experiment or demonstration than a concert – disappointed. He just doesn’t see the point. It seems a case where the idea will inevitably prove superior to the reality.

This new piano, conceived and executed by Taylor with lots of help, features a digital-like console (below) with two keyboards. The console then links up electronically to two regular acoustic concert grand pianos by means of lots of wires. Wires pass along electronic digital impulses to mechanical fingers that hit actual piano keys and makes traditional pianos play.

Hyperpiano console

If the Hyperpiano sounds like some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption, well, that’s because it IS. Ingenious, yes; practical, hardly.

The piece Taylor used to demonstrate his new piano was the momentous and magnificent “Goldberg” Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, a promising and appealing challenge for the new piano. The Ear has heard Taylor play this music before, and it was a memorable experience. 

Not this time.

A great instrument is supposed to make playing easier, to bring both the performer and the audience closer to the music. But this new piano interfered with both and did just the opposite. It put you on edge, just waiting for the next thing to go wrong and get fixed and then go wrong again. It made no sense, and little beauty.

Hyperpiano fixing a problem

Clearly the Hyperpiano – more accurately dubbed Frankenpiano by Taylor’s students — is a technological curiosity that is still a work-in-progress, with lots of snags and flaws that became apparent during 2-1/2 hours.

But even had it worked perfectly, The Ear asks: What is the point?

Certainly it makes for an interesting electrical engineering problem to solve, one that eats up lots of time, thought, energy and money. But why have three $100,000 concert grand pianos and a custom-built piano console all on the stage when a single traditional piano would do the job just fine?

Hyperpiano stage

Single-keyboard pianos have brought us many memorable performances of the Goldbergs – including those by Rosalyn Tureck, Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff, Jeremy Denk, Murray Perahia and Angela Hewitt among others, to say nothing of Taylor himself.

And on stage was an old one-of-a-kind, two-keyboard Steinway that Taylor has used before to fine effect, rather like the two-manual harpsichord that Bach originally wrote the music for and that facilitates the difficult cross-hand passages.

Despite distractions, Taylor played the Bach with total commitment and enthusiasm as well as with his back to the audience, as piano recitals used to be played before the young Franz Liszt turned the piano sideways to show off his heart-throb profile.

Yet the misfiring of electrodes plus an unending loud chirp or tweet and the uneven pistons or clunky mini-jackhammers (below) that hit the keyboards as artificial “fingers” just meant a lot of dropped notes and, for the most part, a very choppy reading of Bach’s great music that stymied both the performer and the listeners.

Hyperpiano fingers

Compounding the performance was that Taylor took all the repeats, which often just doubled the frustration. How The Ear wishes Taylor had played just the first half on the Hyperpiano and then, for comparison, switched to a regular piano or to the two-keyboard Steinway.

True, at the end the audience gave Taylor well earned applause and a prolonged standing ovation. But The Ear suspects it was more for his perseverance, patience, good humor and stupendous effort than for the music itself or the new piano. He bets only a very few listeners would pay to go back to hear another recital on the Hyperpiano.

Will Taylor continue to work on improving the terrifically complex Hyperpiano? Yes, one suspects that he will and one wishes him success. But wouldn’t all that time and effort be better spent learning new music and performing it?

The Ear says: Enough hype about the Hyperpiano!

It’s time for a great musician to get back to the music.

Did you go hear the Hyperpiano?

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

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15 Comments »

  1. Luckily, great inventors and minds do not get discouraged by the ignorant commentaries of ordinary people, otherwise humans would be still in prehistory. Great Christopher Taylor!

    Comment by Papagena — November 4, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

    • I agree with you Papagena.

      At the same time, I think there are some legitimate concerns expressed by the “other side”:

      1) once it became clear that the Frankenpiano (a much better name than the other, in my opinion) wasn’t working well, it probably would have been wise for Prof. Taylor to move to the double keyboarded Steinway, in itself a unique instrument.

      2) use a mic to talk to the audience.

      3) the long-term, “big” question asked by the blogger here: why? If it is so costly, so difficult to do, and it doesn’t work, why continue with it (after a legitimate period of experimentation, of course)?

      Comment by FFlambeau — November 5, 2016 @ 12:14 am

  2. I found the performance by Mr. Taylor to be very informative and an inspiring view of the possibilities
    available in the direction of modern music. Perhaps the critics are mired in the past and are unable to understand that music and musical tastes are constantly evolving. Additionally, being relatively new to the area, this was the first of Jacob Stockinger”s blogs that I have read, and I found his writing style to be both arrogant and annoying.

    Comment by delaneyslew — November 3, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

    • Modern music? The Goldberg Variations represents the summit of 18th century musical genius. I suppose it could be played on kazoos but would that make it “modern”? Wake up. It was a terrible performance mired by imperfect technology conceived for no apparent positive reason. And if you think Jake Stockinger is arrogant, you really need to meet some genuinely arrogant people. He’s one of the most balanced, fair commentators on music I know.

      Comment by James Rhem — November 3, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

      • James: He did say …”the possibilities available in the direction of modern music.” Not “modern music”. There’s a difference.

        While I can understand the reluctance of many to listen to what is yet an unperfected musical instrument and the problems that resulted from that performance, I think Prof. Taylor should be applauded for trying and continuing his quest. Let’s let the professor continue and let him make the decision.

        Comment by FFlambeau — November 3, 2016 @ 8:54 pm

  3. This event was a major bust and both a disappointment and embarrassment to the university. People in this town so often are too nice to say what needs to be said, so thanks to Mr. Stockinger for saying it out loud. I can’t believe people gave this a standing ovation—is this a joke? I had already left by that point.

    Comment by Johan — November 3, 2016 @ 11:11 am

    • In this town people will give a standing ovation to ANYTHING.

      Comment by James Rhem — November 3, 2016 @ 6:45 pm

  4. We left at intermission. The entire evening was a bust. The squeaking came from the pedals which could be confirmed visually. A little oil would surely have cured it. Unforgivable. The whole thing should have been billed as a display of a technology in progress/development NOT as a performance of the Goldberg Variations by a talented pianist. At $18 a pop the concert was a rip off and I felt embarrassed to have brought my musically astute wife to it and contemplated a) leaving after the squeak-filled opening aria and b) asking for our money back. Pitiful.

    Comment by James Rhem — November 3, 2016 @ 10:48 am

  5. I, for one, felt privileged to be sitting in the audience for the unveiling of the “Hyperpiano.” Christopher Taylor is a visionary, a genius and an artist who is compelled to push existing boundaries. Likeminded innovators stuck with the development of the pianoforte when the earliest versions paled in comparison with the organ, harpsichord and clavichord. Where would we be now without visionaries like J.C. and C.P.E. Bach who championed the early piano?

    While the “Hyperpiano” still needs tweaking, I applaud Taylor’s innovation, curiosity and vision. When he commissions new works for the instrument that expand and redefine notions of keyboard technique and when he transcribes monumental symphonic/operatic works (here’s a plug for Liszt/Wagner!), you will be better able to hear what is compelling him to explore the potential of this musical instrument.

    For his colleagues (which I am privileged to be one) and students, his quest to explore, invent and create new ways of making music are inspiring and bold, to say the least. It takes great courage and commitment to put your ideas out there. I applaud him for always doing so wholeheartedly and I can’t wait for the next chance to hear him and his new piano!

    PS- For the price of a bad movie and cheap popcorn, the audience was able to witness history being made. For what it’s worth, most of the proceeds go to student scholarships and paying concert staff.

    Comment by Jess Johnson, UW-Madison Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy — November 3, 2016 @ 9:18 am

    • History being made? A bullfight (while the outcome would be pretty predictable) would have been more entertaining and instructive.

      Comment by James Rhem — November 3, 2016 @ 6:48 pm

      • James, It sounds like your nose is out of joint. If you want to go to a bullfight, please do so. And yes, it was a historic performance if not an entirely successful one. Recall that when the first telephonic transmissions were made, there were problems too and I’m sure the sound quality was not as good as it is today. On the other hand, I think it is fair to question whether the performance should have gone forward if Professor Taylor knew there were audio problems/serious glitches beforehand.

        Perhaps he should have–after 10-15 minutes of experimentation and explanation–played on the 2 keyboard Steinway which itself is a historic instrument. I think this was a sensible comment by Mr. Stockinger in his column and that way, he would have had his experiment and those in the audience who wanted to hear a first class pianist perform the Goldberg variations, would both have been happy. .

        Comment by FFlambeau — November 3, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

  6. My reaction, and that of the three people with me, was quite different. I did not go to hear the Goldbergs (which to my mind are the pinnacle of keyboard music), but to get a glimpse of what will either be a new chapter in the history of the piano, or a footnote in its history. We never know what direction an invention will take; some disappear, some evolve, and some lead to another thing altogether. We were thrilled to be present.

    Comment by slfiore — November 3, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    • Slfiore: a very astute comment

      Comment by FFlambeau — November 3, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

  7. I agree with both the review and the comment. I thought the audience reaction was generous to the performance. Perhaps the use of the instrument was rushed because of the groundbreaking, but the mike problem was totally avoidable.

    Comment by katielmulligan — November 3, 2016 @ 8:05 am

  8. I completely agree wirh your critique. I would add that Mr. Taylor should have used a mike since he talked for 20 minutes and his voice did not project well. He got off to a poor start and everything went downhill from there. A very disappointing experience.

    Comment by Carol — November 3, 2016 @ 5:40 am


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