Sustaining Keyboards: September 15-16

Whether splendid tools of the virtuosos in concert hall and cathedral, or symbols of intimacy and escape in the subterranean practice room or moonlit drawing room, keyboard instruments and their music do not exist in isolation. The very materials used in their construction— from the spruce soundboard in a Ruckers harpsichord, to the ivory key tops on an Érard piano, to the lead-tin alloy pipes of a Stellwagen organ —proclaim their connection to the wider world, to global networks of trade, innovation, and exploitation, with diverse ecological and infrastructural conditions. Transforming these raw materials into exquisite keyboards and the music they produce are the many unsung figures of music history: loggers, hunters, brokers, entrepreneurs, cabinetmakers, tuners, and conservators.

This symposium asks how notions of sustainability might prompt us to think anew about keyboard histories, embedded as they are in ecologies of nature and commerce, artifice and art, craft and industry. What are the stories keyboard instruments tell about climate and changing weather, extraction and global trade, nature and environment? From matter and materials, to institutions and infrastructure, what are the challenges for conservation, restoration, and curation of historical keyboard instruments? To what extent are those histories, and the instruments that embody them, sustainable into an uncertain future?

Over a day-and-a-half we will consider these questions in a series of panels, workshops and concerts, with performances on Cornell’s collection of historical pianos and organs.

This symposium is made possible by the Atkinson Forum at Cornell, with co-sponsorship from the Cornell Center for Historical Keyboards, the Cornell Department of Music, and the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies.

All events are free and open to the public unless noted otherwise. Refer to the complete schedule below. 


Full program with abstracts and participant bios

Friday, September 15

Opening recital: The Organ's Nature

12:30-1:30pm   |    Sage Chapel

Annette Richards and David Yearsley explore natural histories in sound, conjuring forests, birds, and landscapes through the music of Byrd, Sweelinck, Monteverdi, Pärt, and Yearsley, at the Italian baroque (1746) and Aeolian-Skinner (1940) organs.

Panel 1: Sounding Globally, Playing Locally

2:00-4:30pm   |    A. D. White House, Guerlac Room

Janie Cole, “Global Circulation of Renaissance Keyboards in Early Modern Sub-Saharan Africa”
Kirsten Paige, “Micro-Climates, Micro-Fibers, and the Climate-Resistant Piano, ca. 1900”
Fanny Gribenski, “The Organ as Colonial Infrastructure”
Annette Richards and David Yearsley, “Catastrophe and the Cornell Organs: Floods, Fires and the Future”

[Discussion of all papers together at end of session (4-4:30pm)]

Opening reception & keyboard salon with Malcolm Bilson

5:15-7:15pm    |     Hans Bethe House, Apartment of House Professor-Dean Andrew Hicks

Reception served with heavy hors d'oeuvres, preceded by a musical amuse-bouche, “Bach and Silbermann,” presented by Malcolm Bilson.

[For participants and members of Bethe House]

Recital: Wood and Wire, Song and Dance

7:30pm    |    Barnes Hall, Auditorium

Matthew Bengtson performs works by Mozart, Chopin, Fauré, and others on a selection of instruments from the CCHK piano collection.

Important notice: the Barnes Hall elevator is currently out of service. We apologize for the inconvenience.


Full program with abstracts and participant bios

Saturday, September 16

Panel 2: Antiques in Action

9:00-11:00am    |    A. D. White House, Guerlac Room

Kenneth Slowik, “Re-restoration of a 1770 Kirkman Harpsichord.”
Bruce Shull, “Reconstruction of the 1819 Bachmann organ”
Ken Walkup, “Restoration of the 1843 Pleyel piano”
Anne Acker, “It’s a Material World”

Roundtable discussion: Sustaining Keyboard Instruments

11:00am-12:00pm    |    A. D. White House, Guerlac Room

Discussion of talks from Panel 2 and beyond. Participants include the panelists, joined by scholars and performers. 

[Lunch will be served after the roundtable]

Recital:  The Forest and the Trees

1:00-2:00pm    |    Barnes Hall, Auditorium

Pianists Malcolm Bilson, Xak Bjerken, Sezi Seskir, Brian Wang, and Miri Yampolsky present a program featuring piano works inspired by nature, using a selection of instruments from the CCHK piano collection.

Important notice: the Barnes Hall elevator is currently out of service. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Panel 3: Material Stories from the Past and for the Future

2:30-4:30pm    |    A. D. White House, Guerlac Room

Morton Wan, “Silver, Timber, and Labor: Three Short Stories around the First Piano Company in China”
Alexander Meszler, “Nature or Novelty: The Use of Bamboo as a Pipemaking Material in the Asia Pacific”
Randall Harlow, “To Compose or Compost? Cultivating Keyboards in the Chthulucene”

[Discussion of all papers together at end of session (4-4:30pm)]

Recital: Instruments and Adaptations

5:30pm    |    Anabel Taylor Chapel and Sage Chapel 

Nathan Laube draws inspiration from the distinct voices of three different organs, in a program that includes J. S. Bach’s adaptation for the organ of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D Minor, and Laube’s own remarkable transcription of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor. Cornell Baroque Organ (1706/2012), Italian organ (1746), Aeolian-Skinner organ (1940).

Conference dinner

7:15pm    |    A. D. White House

[For invited participants]


Full program with abstracts and participant bios