Acousmatic and Electroacoustic Composer John Nichols III's Exploration of the Yamaha Disklavier

Composer John Nichols III was busy at work on his doctoral dissertation in music composition (from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign) while at VCCA. The dissertation includes two lecture presentations on Nichols' research analyzing the Yamaha Disklavier’s abilities and limitations, a large scale composition for the Disklavier (VCCA’s resides in C3) and electroacoustic sounds, and a paper documenting his research. As a composer, he focuses on acousmatic and electroacoustic music composition. 

The Disklavier is a computerized "hybrid" piano that features an acoustic piano with an electromagnetic mechanism that gives users the ability to record and play back performances note-for-note, with the piano keys, hammers and pedals moving up and down, like an old fashioned player piano. Introduced to the U.S. in 1987, the Disklavier was originally conceived of as an aid for education and recording virtuoso performances. In recent years Disklaviers have been embraced by composers like John as stand alone instruments.

“When I started working with the Disklavier, I thought it was a miracle instrument that could do anything. The first piece I wrote for the Disklavier, The Pillar (which won the Conlon Competition and was performed at the Gaudeamus Muziekweek in the Netherlands) was written pianistically. I was thinking of the work in terms of two hands. Then I realized what this instrument could do; as a composer in the 21st century one doesn’t have to think of composing for two hands anymore. We can think of it in some other terms that we don’t even know yet, because we haven’t discovered the full potential of the Disklavier. It’s exciting. One of the passages in my composition features an upwards cascade of notes evoking raindrops lifting off a roof, or evaporation. I never would have written that for a human being because it is physically impossible."

John soon discovered that while mostly miraculous, the Disklavier presented some problems. John’s compositions are incredibly complex featuring a wide diversity of sonic phenomena melded into a profoundly expressive form. The work is bold, loud and ornate with cascading arpeggios, crashing chords and extremes of timbre from deep bass to fragile tinkling of notes at the upper register. It is the number of notes and rapidity in which they are played that causes problems. According to Yamaha, the instrument is capable of playing 16 notes simultaneously, for example. But when John tried to do this, it caused the Disklavier to crash. “I discovered that if one exceeds six notes simultaneously playing at a certain speed things start to malfunction. I wanted to figure out how fast can one repeat 16-note sonorities. Ten note clusters are too many notes, but it shouldn’t be because the instrument is supposed to accommodate 16.” John’s complex paper explains how to work within the limitations of the Disklavier to accomplish the desired effect.

In addition to the Disklavier, John uses the Digital Instrument for Sound Synthesis and Composition: DISSCO (created by his advisor Dr. Sever Tipei) to generate sounds. John also records sounds in the studio and use a lot of field recordings.

According to John, acousmatic music does not have any visual stimuli associated with it. There are no active human performers on stage; the music is written for loud speakers and is sometimes performed in the dark. During performances the loud speakers are arranged in a configuration around the audience. Many times it’s eight loudspeakers, but it can be more. Last year, John won the ASCAP/SEAMUS Student Composer's Commission Competition that was presented this year at Virginia Tech’s Cube, an electronic marvel boasting over 100 loudspeakers on four different levels.

John’s focus on electronic music was a gradual evolution. He began at age 12 with compositions for the trombone, his first instrument. He turned his attention to the piano “rather late”, at age 16, and started composing for that.

He then composed for orchestral instruments, in addition to a high school rock band and jazz ensembles. “I’ve written compositions for every orchestral instrument. Gradually, I began experimenting with electronics, although they were always an influence. I had experimented with cassette tape early on doing overdubs and things of this nature, but I was very focused on the theatrical aspect of what’s happening onstage—human beings performing. I would request that the performers do outrageous things like whipping the flute around wildly, or screaming into the instrument. Drawing the audience in through visual stimuli. Eventually I realized the visual stimuli was not giving me what I wanted, because what I wanted was sound and composition, sonic composition.”

His focus became to expand the timbre palette of the instrument. When he realized the potential for electroacoustic sound design, it became the logical next step. “When you stop to consider what the instruments of our time are, it’s clear, they’re loudspeakers. We can make so many different types of sound. These are sounds that would be entirely impossible with instruments, and most wouldn’t be imaginable even 30 years ago." 

For someone whose interest is electroacoustic music, John is exactly where he should be as the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign  is known throughout the world for their experimental music program with electronic music studios that date to 1956.

John commenced his new composition for Disklavier and electroacoustic sounds here at VCCA when he was in residence for a month in the spring. “When I came back in the fall I continued. I got so much music done. I also started the electroacoustic part. In fact, the entire electroacoustic part was done here and the great majority of the sounds were all recorded and created at VCCA. I made over 400 recordings on the grounds and around VCCA, Sweet Briar College and on the highway.” John is scheduled to defend his thesis in February.

John has received international recognition for his electroacoustic works and has had compositions performed at Gaudeamus Muziekweek, International Computer Music Conference, and Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States –among others. Nichols' compositions are honored with accolades such as Grand Luigi Russolo Prize and 1st Luigi Russolo Prize in the XXVIII Luigi Russolo International Sound Art Competition (2014, France, Spain), First Prize Absolute in the “Città di Udine” International Composition Competition (2014, Italy), First Prize in the ASCAP/SEAMUS Student Commission Competition (2014, USA), First Prize in the WOCMAT International Phil Winsor Young Composers Competition (2013, Taiwan), Winner of the Second International Conlon Music Prize for Disklavier Plus (2013, Netherlands), and Winner of the Fourteenth Annual 21st Century Piano Commission Competition (2012, Illinois). His compositions are published on Musique & Recherches, SEAMUS, Monochrome Vision, and ABLAZE Records.


bill cunliffe said…
I met John right before I left VCCA. I thought his music was incredibly interesting and powerful.
I had a really productive and wonderful time at VCCA.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to everyone there!

bill cunliffe
pianist and composer

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