A Q&A with Pianist Christopher Taylor

As a professor of piano and a touring performer, Taylor shares his passion for music here and afar

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

Christopher Taylor is working on the double keyboard piano, which he devised base off an old Steinway at UW.

How long have you been in Madison, and where did you come from originally?
I arrived in Madison in 2000, having come from the Boston area. I spent my childhood in Boulder, Colorado.

How did your degrees and studies in mathematics and philosophy give way to the piano?
I’ve always juggled multiple interests, and for a long time I sat on the fence regarding my eventual career. After taking the bronze medal in the Van Cliburn Competition, however, I found myself performing more and more, and my decision about how to proceed was essentially made. Since in truth music has always been the activity closest to my heart, I am certainly happy with how things turned out. But I also have no regrets about the diversity of my studies, which I know benefited me in many ways.

Your early success in the concert hall gave every sign of leading to a “full-time” performing career; how did you end up teaching?
It had been my intention for a long time to teach as well as perform—partly for the stability that such a position affords (counterbalancing the up-and-down vagaries of a concertizing career), partly because I come from a family of teachers, and partly because I believe that teaching enhances one’s musicianship.

How often during the year do you play outside of Madison?
The number varies from year to year, but an average figure might be twenty times.

What is the most exotic country you’ve performed in?
Recent interesting locations abroad include China, Venezuela, Russia and Bosnia.

Tell us about this “double keyboard” piano that you’ve been tinkering with.
Inspired by the unique double-keyboard Steinway that UW owns and that currently resides in my office, I’ve been working to create a modern version. On paper, at least, I have devised a system that will allow a pianist to enjoy the timbre and touch of a regular piano while producing all the unusual pianistic effects that the existing instrument allows (and more besides). The idea is to have the pianist sitting onstage at a special console sporting two complete keyboards, one above the other, 176 keys in all; but the console, instead of producing actual musical sounds, will serve simply as a remote control that activates electronically the keys of two more-or-less ordinary pianos sitting across the stage. The stereophonic results should be pretty interesting!

When you get it to patent (or relatively finished) stage, what will you do with the new instrument?
Progress has been pretty good so far, with a patent application currently working its way through the government offices, and a couple of models of the instrument’s basic mechanisms already built. But I still foresee a couple of years before I have a complete instrument. Once I do, I’ll hope to take the setup on the road, to perform on it both existing repertoire (arrangements of Baroque harpsichord music and more modern organ repertoire, for instance) and new compositions by composers with whom I have planned collaborations.

What are your favorite activities in Madison away from the studio?
I suppose I’d have to choose bicycling, which apart from being my means of commuting, allows me to enjoy the many attractions of the local scenery.

What is your dream vacation for the family?
We’ve been to many wonderful places already—recent highlights include Germany and Glacier National Park—but oddly I’ve never visited the Grand Canyon, and I’d love to rectify that omission. My ambition is to hike down to the bottom while we’re all still (relatively) young and fit.

How old are your daughters, and are they following in your musical footsteps?
Our girls are thirteen and ten. We don’t have grandiose daydreams about siring a musical dynasty, but it’s important to us that they be musically literate and acquire the beneficial self-discipline that comes with music lessons. So they are studying violin and clarinet, respectively.

Who is your favorite, or most influential, philosopher, and does he or she influence anything about your playing?
A philosopher who has influenced me particularly deeply is Daniel Dennett, whose works on evolution, the mind and free will first grabbed my attention shortly after college. His scientifically astute analyses of consciousness and the brain have without doubt improved my understanding of what’s going on internally when I sit at the keyboard.

Who is your favorite composer?
Choosing is very difficult; I’d probably have to respond with a list of about ten composers, with the top position occupied at any particular moment by whichever one I happen to be listening to. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bartók … the variety of incomparable options is what makes my job so amazing.

What musician or group—classical or otherwise—do you most enjoy listening to?
I again find it hard to choose, given the vast variety of phenomenal artists out there. I will say that when I need a change of musical pace, a respite from the classical tradition, that I find it particularly delightful to unwind with old Art Tatum recordings.

What do you tell your students is the most important thing about being a pianist—especially not a professional performer?
I rarely try to boil this craft down to one overriding principle, but obviously I consider it a basic prerequisite for a student to be motivated by love of the art and curiosity about understanding its multifaceted glories. Provided those ingredients are present, then the student will thrive musically, regardless of his or her professional ambitions or prospects.

Christopher Taylor performs a concert featuring Prokofieff’s Sonata No. 6 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat, as arranged by Franz Liszt, at Mills Hall on February 28. For more information on Taylor, visit music.wisc.edu

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