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A Duo of One? The Disklavier Makes It Possible

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When a pianist prepares for a concert of piano duos, one of the primary concerns is—obviously—one’s partner. Questions arise regarding his or her compatibility in interpretation, touch, balance, and availability for rehearsals (not to mention the length and methods of those rehearsals). All these headaches suggest a slight revision of Professor Higgins’ quote from My Fair Lady: “Why can’t a piano partner be like me?”

The author at the Yamaha Disklavier Mark IV Pro, which she will play in a concert on March 27.

(Photo by Yamaha Artist Services, Inc.)

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Aha! This is where the genie pops out of the lamp. What if such a partner were indeed possible? Someone who phrases and paces just like you? Whose interpretation is an uncanny complement of yours? Someone who wants to practicewhen you do, how you do, as much as you do? In fact, wonder of wonders—that partner is you!

This seemingly impossible fantasy becomes reality when armed with the Yamaha Disklavier Mark IV Pro. “Solo Ensemble,” my project that will take place at Yamaha Artist Services on March 27, presents a collection of works for piano four hands, two pianos, piano and voice, and piano concerto. Except for one live singer—the soprano Jennifer Beattie—there will be no other live performer but me. For the works for piano duo, I will prerecord one part on the Disklavier and perform the other part live along with it. Ms. Beattie will sing to a prerecorded accompaniment, and I will perform the concerto with a MIDI orchestra.

Such a project would be farcical if weren’t for the sophisticated features of the Disklavier. This instrument is a classic acoustic Yamaha concert grand, with carbon steel strings, felt hammers, 88 keys, a soundboard, and a wooden cabinet. But it is also a high-tech player piano with a media center containing a built-in hard drive that can store 80 gigabytes of musical data, such as MIDI. MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is the universal standard “language” for communication between electronic devices. It is akin to the punched holes on piano rolls through which air blows to activate the piano hammers—except that, in the case of MIDI, there are numbers instead of holes.

The Disklavier Mark IV is equipped with fiber optic technology that allows it to record and play back up to an astounding 1,023 levels of hammer velocity and 127 increments of pedaling. It can thus reproduce a performance virtually indistinguishable from the original. Not only can you listen to the numerous pianists who have recorded on the Disklavier, but you can also listen to any performance that has been transcribed in MIDI. It is now possible to listen to Rachmaninoff, Gould, and Gershwin play in your living room, on your own piano!

With the recording features of the Disklavier, musicians no longer have to rely on the sound quality of a minidisc or MP3 recorder, but can hear their performance directly from an acoustic piano. In addition, by using the speed, volume, and transposition features, the listener can compare how a piece would sound at a different speeds or volumes, and singers can have their accompaniment transposed to any key.

With this sophisticated piece of equipment at my disposal, it dawned on me that I could now create my own ideal interpretation of a piano ensemble piece simply by learning both parts, prerecording one, and performing the other along with it!

But wait: wouldn’t this take away one of the greatest aspects of ensemble playing—the interaction between people? If one of the parts is prerecorded, is this truly an ensemble performance—or a performance of any sort?

To accept the idea, one must understand that the result is neither a completely live performance nor a recording, but a hybrid of the two. “Solo Ensemble” combines elements of both formats to create a result closest to my own ideal.

The technique of overdubbing has been used for many years in pop recordings. In 1991, Natalie Cole created a stir when she recorded “Unforgettable” in a virtual duet with her father, Nat King Cole, who had recorded the song four years before his death in 1965. In film, actors have convincingly depicted twins, from Bette Davis in the 1946 film A Stolen Life to Jeremy Irons’s brilliant performance more than 40 years later as the Mantle twins in Dead Ringers (but let’s try to block Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Impact from our memories). Even in classical music, overdubbing is not a new idea. In its 2005 CD of the Mendelssohn String Quartets (which won two Grammy Awards, for best-engineered classical album and for best chamber music performance), the Emerson Quartet included the composer’s Octet, playing all the parts.

In preparing “Solo Ensemble,” I must learn all the parts equally well. I record one part and play the other along with it, then switch parts, and repeat the process until satisfied with both parts. Only then do I make the actual recording that will be my “partner,” which I will have no control over during performance, and to which I must react as I would a live partner. I discovered that this process does not sacrifice musical integrity in any way; on the contrary, I was able to gain a broader understanding of the work than I would by learning only one of the parts.

On the program, I will also be performing a Haydn concerto using Home Concert Xtreme, a score-following program created by Time Warp Technologies. With this program, one can learn, practice, and perform piano concertos while the MIDI accompaniment follows the pianist’s tempi and dynamics. When used along with orchestral sound sample libraries, such as Garritan, the accompaniment can sound quite realistic. The balance, phrasings, tempi, and volume can all be easily adjusted on the computer. It’s a wonderful way to learn the orchestral score much more deeply than when playing with a second piano.

The Yamaha Disklavier has already been used in live concerts. The pianist Anthony de Mare has compellingly performed 20th-century works in an autobiographical solo theater piece combining traditional pianism, speech, and dance with the recording features of the Disklavier. How will this technology fare in less avant-garde concert programs? Only time will tell—and that time may begin with “Solo Ensemble.”

“Solo Ensemble” will take place on Thursday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. at the Piano Salon at Yamaha Artist Services, located at 689 Fifth Avenue (the entrance is on 54th Street). Admission is $15, or $10 with a student ID. For more information, call (212) 339-9995.

 

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