Bach ’n’ tech: Pianist to perform on FabLab piano

When Christopher Taylor sits down in Mills Auditorium on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” his interpretation will be unlike any previous performance of the 1741 composition.

Originally written for the harpsichord, the aria followed by 30 musical interpretations is considered one of history’s most important examples of the variation form.

Taylor’s performance Oct. 28 will be close to what he believes Bach intended the composition to sound like, thanks to a double-keyboard piano that Taylor designed and built over the past four years.

“The big dilemma is what I will be calling the instrument,” Taylor noted while striding through his cluttered workshop in the Medical Engineering Group’s FabLab on the Madison campus. “A former student of mine christened it the ‘Frankenpiano.’ Another one called it the ‘Hyperpiano,’ which I kind of like.”

No matter what the final name, Taylor’s blend of traditional keyboard structure and modern electronic technology may chart new directions in piano performance and composition.

It also may change the way audiences and performers view the piano.

The hyperpiano allows for reinterpretations of the classics, especially those written for earlier double-keyboard instruments like the harpsichord.

Its tiered keyboard construction may also open up new sounds and progressions for contemporary composers.

“I would never be content, as a pianist, to play the same half-dozen pieces the same way year in and year out,” said Taylor, known for physically exhausting, perspiration-soaked performances. “In piano literature, we have a vast array of great compositions, but we are always questing for new variety.”

Music and math

Taylor grew up in an academic family in Boulder, Colorado. He was drawn to music and by age 10 he was performing Beethoven pieces. He also fell in love with mathematics and thought that field promised a steadier career. In 1992, he graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Harvard University.

Taylor also had studied piano under Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Talent and drive drew attention to the tall, lanky pianist. He won several major awards. In 1993, he earned a bronze medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, for performances of works by Beethoven, Boulez and Brahms, as well as Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” now a standard part of his repertoire.

This Texas triumph set Taylor’s career on a certain course and, after several years on the concert circuit, he arrived in 2000 in Madison on the School of Music’s faculty.

Developing a two-tiered piano

While at UW, Taylor came across the Moor Pianoforte, an earlier iteration of a double-keyboard piano that would change his life.

Invented by Hungarian composer Emánuel Moór in the 1920s, the instrument featured a two-tiered keyboard but space within the piano cabinet allowed for only one set of the traditional 88 keys, with the upper tier limited to just 76 keys. Offset by an octave, the proximity of the 164 keys allowed one hand to play two octaves at once, creating a richer and fuller sound.

Many found Moór’s invention difficult to play and only 60 instruments were produced during the 1920s, including one by Steinway that sits in Taylor’s cramped campus office.

“It’s clever as a musical contrivance, but it’s a little unwieldy and feels strange under your fingers,” Taylor said, noting corresponding keys on the keyboards end up striking the same string. “You have to work very hard to play the keys because you’re pushing two hammers at once.”

Christopher Taylor
Christopher Taylor examines his double-keyboard piano.

The pianoforte found its way to UW when Danish pianist Gunnar Johansen became the university’s artist-in-residence in 1939. He convinced donors to purchase the pianoforte for him, which they did on condition that its ownership return to UW upon Johansen’s death.

The pianist died in 1991 and the instrument lay in storage for 14 years — until Taylor discovered it in 2005. He immediately began experimenting with the instrument’s possibilities.

“I have heard (Taylor) play the Moór Pianoforte several times and it’s remarkable what he can get out of it,” said pianist Robert Hohf, who helped Taylor throughout his invention process. “His goal was to have a dual manual system that felt like playing a regular piano. It was a fascinating concept, but his idea sounded questionable to me.”

‘Frankenpiano’ indeed

Taylor believed a better way was possible to realize what Moór envisioned. He drew on musical, mathematical and computer programming skills, as well as the help of staff, students and consultants working with him in the FabLab.

Thousands of hours later, Taylor realized his vision.

The hyperpiano at looks like a heavyweight version of the standard upright piano with two keyboard tiers consisting of 88 keys each and five pedals rather than the standard three. However, the main unit, which Taylor calls the “output device,” contains no wires to sound.

Instead, the player’s strokes are linked to electronic sensors that communicate to two standard upright pianos — “slave units” — that read the signals from the output device and deliver the notes acoustically. The two uprights respond in real time to the signals from the output device, removing any lag time between the signals being sent and received by the slave units.

The effect is two pianos professionally played from a single unit, with roughly 30 feet of cabling connecting all the components

The keyboard feels like the keyboard of a regular piano when being played, a major improvement over the Moór Pianoforte.

Taylor’s performance on his hyperpiano will offer an opportunity to hear an interpretation of the “Goldberg Variations” not possible for previous generations.

The question now: Where does the pianist, with his new creation, go from here?

On Stage

Christopher Taylor will perform Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” at 8 p.m. Oct. 28 in Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building, UW-Madison campus, 455 N. Park St. Tickets are $5–$18 and can be purchased online or by calling 608-265-2787.