Look, Ma, No Hands!

Subtropic composers say the Disklavier has a finger on the future

The spectral presence of a seemingly ordinary piano emitting music without the aid of human fingers has become, if not common, not especially alarming. Barely an eyebrow is raised when they're sighted boisterously playing show tunes in hotel bars, or providing promenade music from a platform in the center of a suburban shopping mall.

The Yamaha Disklavier, the player piano for the computer age, comes in upright and grand models and looks like any other piano, with the addition of a control unit resembling a CD player mounted under the right side of the keyboard. Pop a disk into the slot, and the keys move by themselves. Through a system of digital fiber optics, the technology can recognize and activate up to 18,000 key and pedal positions, allowing for an exact reproduction of a particular musician's interpretation of a composition. It can record not only the notes played, but also how hard or soft the pianist strikes the keys, thereby capturing the emotion of the piece as well as the tune. Hooking up other MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) technology expands the capabilities, allowing for hypothetically infinite instrumental arrangements. A digital tone generator, one option available from Yamaha, offers "192 powerful, realistic voices and 10 drum kits" for home enjoyment.

Disklaviers went on the market in Japan a decade ago, and Yamaha has sold them in the United States for about five years. With retail prices starting at about $6000, the digitized piano offers, as a company catalogue puts it, "the best of both worlds A a fine acoustic instrument for you or other pianists to perform on, and a way to enjoy the same vibrant sounds when no pianist is available or willing." Orchestra members practice along with the Disklavier, which can play any number of keyboard parts, or perform half of a piano duet. Church choirs and dance companies use them as an automated accompanist. Composers can record their music into the piano and play it back, eliminating excessive notation.

For untrained aficionados, more than 250 prerecorded Disklavier disks are currently available, providing piano accompaniment by amenable artists ranging from classical pianists like Jorg Demus and Tzimon Barto to pop acts like Billy Joel. (Even the late Liberace tried one). Ray Morgan of Morgan Music on Biscayne Boulevard, who stocks the pianos, reports that more sophisticated technology will soon allow anyone (with the money to spend) to hook such an instrument up to the living room TV set and watch a televised concert broadcast from Carnegie Hall while listening to the same music play simultaneously on the piano at home. Live instrumentation -- if not live players -- is beamed right into your living room.

J.B. Floyd, chairman of the keyboard performance department of the University of Miami's music school, is among a group of experimental composers that has already forged this musical cyberspace. Last fall, he and four other musicians participated in a groundbreaking on-line concert, coordinated by the Electronic Cafe at the Kitchen performance space in New York. The musicians, stationed at the Kitchen and two similar venues in Santa Monica and Santa Fe, convened via phone line and video. Floyd and colleague Morton Subotnick, both in New York, played a piano in Santa Monica by remote control, while the musicians on the West Coast programmed various instruments set up at the Kitchen to respond when they struck a note three thousand miles away. One critic, writing in the Village Voice, called the performance "a thrilling premonition of the 22nd century".

The Red Room at Miami Dade Community College Wolfson Campus lacks the technological infrastructure for such an experiment, but Floyd and Subotnick will perform their recent compositions for Disklavier in person at the venue on Saturday. The concert is part of the Subtropics Music Festival, which winds up its program with seven free events this week (see "Calendar" listings). Gustavo Matamoros, director of the annual new music festival, will present his own works composed for the Disklavier, and pianist Anthony de Mare is scheduled to perform De Profundis, a piano theater work based on Oscar Wilde's prison writings.

For composers like Floyd, the computerized piano has thus far proved most valuable as a tool for composing. "It's not like writing a piece of music down and imagining it," notes the Miami composer, who spent spring break creating his piece for this week's concert on his home Disklavier (the University of Miami owns fifteen of them). "You can record your thoughts and ideas right into the piano and edit them later."

As with other fields of interactive technology, the current challenge for musicians working with computer-enhanced instruments is to create compositions that make use of the developments of the available hardware. Saturday's concert will showcase musicians who have begun to treat the Disklavier as a whole new instrument, instead of as a traditional piano that can play by itself.

"It's a novelty at this time, but so was the piano after the harpsichord and clavichord," asserts Floyd. "So who's to say? It may develop into a new form of expression.

With the expansion of the cyberworld, the possibilities are there for further experimentation. I think the experimentation is just beginning."

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