Hugo Morales Murguia & Sarah Nicolls > Disklavier/Conlon/Gaudeamus


This project sought to generate a new experimental piece for Yamaha Disklavier + pianist (me!).  Hugo Morales Murguia was commissioned by the Conlon Foundation at my suggestion, as his composing always seeks to take a new approach to an instrument and we had worked together several times before, creating other exploratory pieces for ‘extended’ piano. We worked at STEIM (where the Conlon’s Disklavier had been housed for summer – my first personal experience of a real piano being at STEIM so that was exciting!) over two collaborative residencies, to discover what the instrument could do.

The attractions of this instrument are basically that it can function independently of the performer, as a kind of player piano, but can also be played from a computer or anything that gives out MIDI.  It can also respond to live input from the pianist, taking the MIDI as something to be processed or conversed with.  Essentially Hugo created a kind of duet then – with the piano sometimes playing itself and me doing things on top of that to control another layer (eg the piano playing it’s own notes, held down, which then fed pitches into homemade speakers which I held against the strings – creating an eerie double-layered song between machine, human and the resonant acoustic qualities of a grand piano).

For me, the neatest and most poetic section was the third (there are four discrete sections of the piece in total).  Here I let the keyboard lid fall softly, revealing pressure sensors on the keys that I then used to control the intensity of very fast repeated notes the piano played itself, under the lid.  This clever use of human-as-expression and machine-as-powerful/inexhaustible showed a really intelligent use of the capabilities of the instrument.

Our work together involved both exploring the instruments capabilities but focused gradually on notation: How does one most effectively notate simple but new performance systems?  Taking this time to carefully create a score was a valuable reminder of the need to work together – composer and performer – and allowed us to use pre-existing and new notational language in a useful mix.

The performance was at Gaudeamus Muziek Week 2010 and was attended by a full house at STEIM, with presentations by Christina Oorebeek, Frank Balde and Luc Hautkamp.


I suppose that one of the first seductions of using such an instrument is to make it play all those things that for pianists are unachievable or ‘un-pianistic’ to realize. Thus, my first sketches where mainly focused in the performance of acrobatic and humanly impossible gestures and pitch-densities.  After a lot of speculation of the real possibilities of the disklavier and some structural planning, I finally had the chance to work physically with the instrument, a form of work that I largely enjoy. I soon confirmed the instrument was capable of reproducing all those things a pianist cannot achieve (although its possibilities of speed, responsiveness and density are to be considered). However, very soon, the native features of the instrument easily blurred all those previous interests away.  I discovered a ‘new’ instrument with its own sounds, (very different from a piano), its own limitations and a variety of control possibilities (greatly expanded by Sarah) to be explored.

In short, I opted to compose a work based on the mechanical features of the instrument, a study about the musical use of its artifacts and extensions of its control possibilities.

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