21st Century Composers Choose Disklavier

Pianist Daniel Koppelman plays a Disklavier connected with Gestural, a program authored by composer Christopher Dobrian to interact improvisationally with a live performer. The list of composers, arrangers, and multimedia artists using Disklavier in their work today is this century's A-list of innovators in music-making: David Rosemboom. Tod Machover. Steve Horowitz. Kyle Gann. Eve Egoyan. JB Floyd. Christopher Dobrian. Robert Black. Xiao Xiao. SO MANY others. With this list growing by the minute, we would like to carve some space here at the DEN to explore some of the many ways today's musical creators have put our favorite instrument to work, sometimes testing its limits.

When we began collecting information a few years ago (many thanks to Robert Willey for already having started a pretty comprehensive list!), we expected to hear a lot about how composers were using Disklavier as a stand-in pianist so that they could actually hear their works played on an acoustic piano. After all, not everyone has a virtuoso pianist down the hall to play compositions the minute they roll out of the composer's pen (or computer or iPad).

Given that composers are the historical beta-testers of all musical instruments, we also weren't surprised to find that composers were using the Disklavier for experimental works, going beyond the limits of human playability. Many of the composers have asked us about the Disklavier's polyphony, for instance, so they can hear what it sounds like to play rapidfire 20-note chords scattered across the keyboard.

We were a little surprised, however, to discover just how many composers now list the Disklavier as the PRESCRIBED instrumentation—with the expectation that the Disklavier will be the exact instrument realizing the composition. Though in many cases works could easily have been played by instruments besides Disklavier—certainly many digital and synthesized instruments are up to the task of playing a lot of fast notes, for instance— The Disklavier's unique combination of a precision-performing, yet still organic, expressive instrument both inspires and defines how a work's performance should sound. That quality, added to the creative infinity of computer-based and algorithmic writing, has turned into an appealing platform for many composers. We recently spoke with UC Irvine's Christopher Dobrian to better articulate that perspective:

"Initially I was attracted by the Disklavier's ability to play music of greater complexity and technical demands than could be achieved by a human performer, while retaining the sound of an acoustic instrument, which I found more appealing - or at least more suitable for my musical conception - than many synthesized sounds. Since those early pieces, I've been attracted by the Disklavier because it allows my compositions to take advantage of the virtuosity and expressivity of a live pianist while also creating an interactive dialogue between pianist and computer in an improvised, performative setting."

Musical America's 2016 Composer of the Year Tod Machover created a full exposition of this idea with Jeux Deux, a multimedia orchestral work in which the Disklavier becomes central to the composer's "Hyperpiano" construction.  The pianists playing enters Machover's own Max/MSP-based software, which in turn bounces musical interpolations back to the Disklavier as well as to algorithmically produced digital visual creations designed by artist Marc Downie. In Jeux Deux, every sound, whether produced by the chamber orchestra or by the Disklavier's own hammers and strings, is authentically acoustic.

As far back as the 1990s, composers JB Floyd and David Rosenboom were using Disklavier to collaborate over space and time, creating music that would intentionally sound different depending on the audience location. Check out this video captured in 1994!

With Disklaviers available in many institutional composition programs and least a few festivals and competitions emerging with Disklavier as a central component, we can expect even more of boundary-stretching works, merging visual arts, computing and composing, as the century progresses. The International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) now in its 42nd year, routinely provides a Disklavier for its competitors. The Conlon Foundation offers a prize specifically for Disklavier-based compositions--a nod, of course, to 20th-century composer Conlon Nancarrow, who pioneered the whole idea of creating works for reproducing piano. Here at the DEN, we are eager to see the creative output from all of these and more!

Finally, lest we get stuck high in ivory towers, it is also significant to note that the Disklavier pervades more mainstream composition as well. Jonathan Tessero, responsible for producing everything from Disney musicals to Super Bowl halftime shows, credits Disklavier in his creative process. Multimedia artist Xiao Xiao has used Disklavier to create fanciful works that make even complex repertoire more approachable for lay-people. Jazz artist Tony DeSare recently produced an entire album, using only a Disklavier.

We invite you to keep an eye on this space for future reports on how today's musical creators are using the Disklavier to reach their artistic goals. Stay tuned!
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