Story by Richard Mumford, School of Music
Welbourne, professor of piano and director of graduate studies at the School of Music, wanted to find a way to mark the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth by exploring and exhibiting two sides of the composer’s personality.
With a summer grant from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, a piano and equipment from campus sources and a labor pool of his enthusiastic students, Welbourne completed the installation for viewing on November 10-11.
Liszt’s complex personality was no secret during his lifetime and has only grown in mythical stature since his death: his technical abilities as a pianist were legendary and he had a commanding stage presence; Welbourne compares him to rock stars of today’s culture.
But Liszt wanted to be taken seriously, too, as a composer of substance and merit. And his contemporaries Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin would remind him of this higher calling.
The composer’s two personality traits were thus juxtaposed in a distinctly bifurcated sonic environment.
Welbourne outfitted the School of Music’s Yamaha Disklavier, normally housed in Morphy Hall, with 12 electro-magnets suspended just above the piano’s center strings. Through the use of the computer program Logic Pro, he fed a variety of sounds to the magnets, which would find sympathetic vibrations among the piano’s strings.
The resulting filtered sounds represented the composer’s serious or creative side.
A video camera hung from the balcony railing was programmed to generate actual piano sounds when it sensed movement near the piano, in the form of short excerpts of some of Liszt’s scores.
Students and other onlookers triggered this effect when they walked near the piano and heard technically brilliant passages as they saw the keys being depressed, somewhat akin to a traditional player piano representing Liszt’s “flashy” side.
According to Welbourne, “these sounds represent the “showman” side of Liszt and are meant to be a distraction. If those standing around the instrument stay very still they will soon be able to hear the “inner” Liszt emerge from the sound.”
“It is important to note that all the sounds you hear come entirely from the piano strings—there are no speakers anywhere in the setup.”
The installation also included an eight-minute slide show of Liszt iconography.