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This renowned Wisconsin pianist has invented a way to play two grand pianos at the same time

Christopher Taylor

UW-Madison piano professor Christopher Taylor demonstrates his invention, the Hyperpiano, in his office in the Humanities building. Taylor will debut the new instrument in an Oct. 28 concert in Mills Hall. 

Though the "Goldberg Variations" by J.S. Bach have been interpreted in countless ways through the centuries, no one has heard the iconic work as it will be performed in Madison on Oct. 28.

That's when the renowned pianist and UW-Madison professor Christopher Taylor will perform the 18th-century composition on his "Hyperpiano" — a 21st century invention that Taylor himself created piece by piece over the past five years.

The electronic-run instrument allows two grand pianos to be played simultaneously by one musician — with the potential to take piano repertoire in new directions. Taylor invented the concept, wrote the software, manufactured the keys, designed the 60-odd circuit boards and is now exploring just how far his newly patented invention can go.

When the Hyperpiano makes its debut on the Mills Hall stage, Taylor will be seated at a two-tiered keyboard, which has the same touch as a standard piano but none of its inner strings. There will also be two concert grand pianos on stage, each with an odd-looking frame and assembly of wires placed where a player's hands usually rest.

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Details of Hyperpiano

Wires, circuits and solenoids create the motion that enables a musician to create complex sounds on two grand pianos as part of Christopher Taylor's Hyperpiano. 

As Taylor begins to play the 80-minute "Goldberg Variations," the keyboard he is sitting at will send signals to the devices at the concert grands to push the keys on that instrument — instantaneously. Listeners will hear two voices from the dual pianos.

"That adds a new dimension to the counterpoint, which can be interesting for the people sitting out in the audience," Taylor said. But that's not all: Using the console's 176 keys and five specially designed pedals, Taylor can also command octaves or massive chords from the two pianos sitting many feet away from him.

"It takes a couple of hundred lines of computer code to implement that, so that if I push a single key here, you get multiple keys over there," he demonstrated at the Hyperpiano, which has a temporary home in his office in the UW-Madison Humanities Building.

Taylor, who has taught piano performance at UW-Madison since 2000, earned a degree in mathematics from Harvard University. Before becoming a professional pianist, he was a bronze medal winner in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, at which he played the "Goldberg Variations" and other works on a standard single-keyboard Steinway.

The musician is also celebrated for his insatiable intellectual curiosity and mental energy, qualities that have been hailed in his concert performances by effusive music critics.

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Hyperpiano mechanics

Computer code on the laptop at left is used to program Christopher Taylor's Hyperpiano. The UW-Madison music professor built the invention from the ground up. 

The idea for the Hyperpiano arose from another complex instrument Taylor has championed, UW-Madison's double-keyboard Steinway known as a Moor Pianoforte.

The Moor Pianoforte was designed by the little-known Hungarian composer Emanuel Moor, using a two-tiered keyboard to give the piano some of the features of the harpsichord (for which Bach wrote the "Goldberg Variations") or the organ. The Moor pianoforte in Madison, built in Germany in 1929, was brought here at the request of Danish pianist Gunnar Johansen, UW-Madison's artist-in-residence in 1939.

The Moor piano went into storage in the 1990s until it was rediscovered by Taylor, who has since performed on the instrument around the country (both Taylor and the double-keyboard Steinway were stars of a 2007 New York Times video).

"The Moor piano, of course I got to know pretty well over the years," he explained. "It's a great instrument, but it's got a few problems. It doesn't feel like playing a normal piano. For one thing, it's very heavy. You have to push very hard to get it to respond.

"So that was one of my goals – to get something that feels more like playing a normal instrument," he said. With the Hyperpiano, "I feel like I've achieved that. I think it feels very similar to a regular piano. And with the set-up now I'm able to do everything I can do on the Moor piano, plus I can do all those extra fancy tricks.

"I won't really be using them to the full advantage when I play the 'Goldberg Variations' on them," he said, "but I'm hoping in the coming years that I'll get some composers to create music to really put it through its paces."

Taylor has talked to UW-Madison professor and contemporary composer Laura Schwendinger, as well as his longtime collaborator Derek Bermel, about composing for the instrument, he said.

But first he had to build the Hyperpiano. Taylor connected with George Petry, a master builder in the fabricating laboratory or "FabLab" at the Morgridge Institute for Research, and Giri Venkataramanan, a professor in the UW-Madison department of electrical and computer engineering.

At first Petry thought Taylor was "crazy, because I knew this was going to be so much work," Petry told the university's Mead Witter School of Music in an interview. "I have a lot of students coming in who have never built anything before who say they want to build a space shuttle. I thought this was Chris's space shuttle."

Indeed, "There were a whole bunch of interesting challenges along the way," Taylor said. "I had to learn to operate these big computer-controlled machines over at the Institute for Discovery. Just learning how manufacturing works – I had no experience with that before. I'd never done any woodworking or anything like that.

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Keyboard

Christopher Taylor had to design and manufacture custom keys for the Hyperpiano. The keys, which have no levers or strings as in a normal piano, offer the same touch as a standard instrument. 

"Now, having a lot of experience with computers helped me a lot, and also mathematics, being able to sort of visualize these 3-dimensional structures," he said. "Another challenge definitely was learning to design circuit boards."

The finished Hyperpiano is much more portable than the Moor pianoforte. And it has many more artistic possibilities, Taylor said.

"When I first learned the 'Goldberg Vatiations,' I learned it on a regular single keyboard piano," he said. "There's a certain amount of fudging and negotiating that has to take place. The hands are constantly in danger of colliding with each other, because the individual parts are always intertwined and are crossing each other.

"And that's a little hard to pull off. On the Moor piano, it's a little easier, but it's still challenging because of the technical limitations of that instrument" — such as only one set of strings and hammers.

"And therefore if both hands are trying to play the same note, they jam," Taylor said. "You get a little bit stuck. And that doesn't happen here, because you have two complete instruments at your disposal."

When he performs Bach on the Hyperpiano, "in some ways I'll be doing it more like how it was done on harpsichords, where you had the double keyboards and you also had separate strings for every single key," Taylor said. "So the voices could freely cross each other, and you could also hear more easily the distinction between them."

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Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.