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e-Competition I - The Yamaha Disklavier Pro Mark IV

This past week, I spent 4 days immersing myself in the latest of young pianistic talent, as well as the latest in piano technology. Each merits its own entry, so that's what I'm going to do! The e-Competition, based in Minnesota, started in 2000 with the idea of embracing fully the possibilities of technology in the service of good old-fashioned piano playing of the great traditions begun over 300 years ago. Based on Yamaha's extensive development of the concert grand piano CFIIIS and their parallel development of electronic recording of MIDI information, the Disklavier is an incredible 21st Century piano. Full disclosure requires me to say that I'm a Yamaha artist, but having had a hand (actually, two hands) in the development of the CFIIIS during my time in Paris, I feel I've made an investment in Yamaha - both professional and personal. The e-Competition's screening auditions take full advantage of the Disklavier technology, and I believe they are the only competition to do so, at least currently. My suspicion is that, as economic times continue to get difficult, especially for the arts, the possibilities of using the Disklavier will become more and more tempting for our very conservative little artistic niche. The technology has advanced past a critical tipping point, and any continuing mechanical concerns with using the Disklavier are now on par with the constant and expected mechanical concerns of using an instrument as complex as a grand piano - tuning, voicing, pedal regulation, escape regulation, etc. In the company of three wonderful colleagues - Rees Allison, Stanislav Pochekin, and the e-Competition director Alexander Braginsky - I spent a happy 4 days listening to over 60 pianists perform 25 minute programs. While we worked with very little pause from 10am to 8pm every day, the process was much less tiring than similar processes have been for me at other events. This is the first unexpected observation about this particular experience: listening to auditions with the Disklavier was much less tiring than I expected. In the past, I have participated in juries where auditions were held live, and others where applicants sent in audio recordings. My memories of both processes are broadly painted over with one feeling - fatigue! In the case of live auditions, we jury members went to the contestants - we traveled around the world, over a period of weeks, setting up physically and mentally in many different cities, battling jet-lag, food issues and strange beds! We spent a substantial amount of time ... waiting - for planes, for taxis, for contestants, for audiences. With the Disklavier, we were able to leave the traveling to a single coordinator, who worked with local Yamaha staff and technicians to set up the taping of the auditions. Once auditions had taken place - in NY, LA, Paris, Moscow and Beijing - the recordings were collected together in NY, where our jury group was able to hear them in quick succession. For myself, it was a dream job for 4 days. I got up in the morning, dressed, grabbed some breakfast as I headed out to the Metro-North train station. The hour-long ride gave me ample opportunity to read the newspaper, look over some mail and grab a quick snooze before stepping onto the Grand Central platform in NYC. A brisk walk to the Yamaha showroom gave me a good alibi for another day passing without doing any swimming! I checked my pedometer - 2000 aerobic steps one way, already better than the number of steps the average couch potato American takes in a day. By the third day, I was fantasizing about having an office job, timing my short drive from home to the train station parking lot with only 2 minutes to spare, lining myself up on the train platform at the exact spot where the train doors would stop and open, my pre-paid ticket ready in my wallet. Unfortunately, the third day was a Saturday, and the 8:04 ran only on weekdays. Fortunately, the weekend train arrived 20 minutes later, which still got me to Yamaha on time, albeit with a brisker walk. Soon after we began, it became clear how efficient this would be. There was no waiting for the contestant to walk to the piano, sit down, adjust the bench height, wipe the keyboard, find their concentration before starting to play. Electronic editing had eliminated all of this before we arrived. The timing between pieces was also edited, so that we could move on to the next piece as quickly as we wanted. On the flip side, whenever a break was necessary, we could put everything on hold. The fact that the performances were not live allowed us the freedom to stretch, have quick discussions, signal for help, without the worry of disturbing the performer's concentration. The Disklavier playback took place in the acoustically designed showroom, on a piano that had been prepared by the best technicians Yamaha has to offer. The performances were recorded around the world in similar spaces, on similarly prepared pianos. Besides the MIDI Disklavier information, the recording also included a hi-def video, synched with the playback. In the showroom, the image of the pianist - seen in the standard profile-view first preferred by Liszt - was projected on a large screen just behind the piano. As a result, the pianist appeared life-size, with the keyboard of the Disklavier seeming to project out of the screen as a strange 3-D extension of the keyboard in the video. It took very little time to adjust to the dichotomy of seeing a 2-D visual "performing" in 3-D acoustics. Comparing this listening experience to listening to performances recorded on CD reminded me of the different set of challenges I experienced listening to auditions submitted by audio recordings. It is harder to stay focused on a performance over a long period when only one of the senses - in this case, hearing - is involved. With the synchronized video, enhanced by the illusion of life-sized presence, the playback on Disklavier became much closer to a multi-sensory experience of a concert, which allowed the inevitable lapses in aural concentration to be bridged by the visual stimulus, and vice-versa. Another challenge with CD auditions is the quality of the audio reproduction itself. If the recording is captured with inadequate tools, and especially when the audio playback is on a less-than-audiophile equipment, the reduced fidelity narrows the sensory field of the listener. One's attention turns more and more to minute details that actually have little bearing on the overall performance - a buzz, an intonation problem, a missed note become irritations that distract. Researchers have discovered this same difference between driving while talking to a passenger and talking on a cell-phone - lack of fidelity and focus on a single sensory input. It makes it much more dangerous to have a long conversation on the phone while driving than with your passenger. Using CDs to screen contestants might also cause more accidents! The Disklavier experience solved many of these issues. Besides the video component's influence, the greatest advantage over recorded performances is the fact that the Disklavier is producing actual piano sound. The richness of overtones, the minute and multiple differences of color, the effects of the pedal, the enveloping sensation of a carefully designed acoustic in the hall. All of these allow the listener to move freely between the overall picture and the minute detail, the freedom which is the richness of a live performance. There were some technical issues with the Disklavier technology. For the very first session, the right pedal was not properly regulated, causing it to descend less than what the pianist originally executed. Over the course of 6 contestants, we judges were alternately impressed, horrified and quizzical about the strangely dry approach of these players. Impressed by the daring and the clarity of the playing and attention to articulation, which was actually no more than just hearing the bare bones of the playing without pedaling. Horrified at some of the obvious inaccuracies revealed by the lack of pedal cover. And then quizzical when it seemed that the piano-playing traditions of 200 years had suddenly been forgotten by this new generation! We took a break while the Yamaha technician did some emergency regulations and computer debugging. When we regrouped, the pedal issue had been resolved, making such a big difference that we decided to relisten to the candidates with a fresh ear. We were all reassured by the results - in fact, one of those six players made it to the final 24 contestants. A few contestants pushed the Disklavier to its technological limits, where it concerned repetition and controlling slow releases. The successful execution of both of these elements depends on finding the sweet spot - for repetition, the sweet spot where the key's escape mechanism re-engages; for controlled release, the sweet spot where the damper just begins to touch the string. These spots are different on every piano, and different on every key. They even evolve over the short course of a single performance. The Disklavier is not designed to be able to sense these individual spots and track their changes. Ironically, this means that the pianist who is extremely sensitive and is playing right around these spots will not hear his performance reproduced well on a Disklavier. To be truthful, very few of the pianists danced on this particular edge (more on that in the next blog), and those who did were able to project their daring and control on other levels that were also evident to us. It is, however, one of the remaining issues with the Disklavier, and reproducing pianos in general. I've had the opportunity to make recordings for Disklavier, and I've been impressed with the technology, even though I could list all of the defaults and challenges with the instrument. In this prolonged exposure to such high-level playing, I was even more impressed with the overall possibilities that Disklavier allows. Certainly at the highest professional level, the Disklavier combines the best of live performance with the best of recording and reproducing technology. Other competitions should take note! Next blog, I will write about the overall impression with the performances I heard.

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