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19 minutes reading time (3739 words)

How do you use technology in live performances?

You cannot play the late piano works of Beethoven on an early Cristofori pianoforte because there aren't enough notes. You also cannot play the music of Chopin on a mid-eighteenth-century piano because it is too impractical to manipulate the dampers with a knee lever. Nor can you expect to play the works of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, or Prokofiev on an early nineteenth-century piano that pre-dates the introduction of the cast iron frame. 

Indeed, the history of the piano and how it is played is a history of technological innovation and change. Below you'll find two fascinating narratives from contemporary piano artists who are using twenty- first-century, technology-equipped pianos on stage. Be sure to visit the online edition of this article at www.claviercom panion.com to see additional photos and video clips of Lisa Yui and Angelin Chang using technology in live performance. 

Piano, technology, and performance: History in the making

by Lisa Yui

At first, the application of new technology in live performance may seem to go against the essence of classical music. The history of the pianoforte often reveals clashes between those who incorporated new technology in its development and those who vehemently opposed change. For example, when cast iron began to replace the wooden frame of the piano in the early nineteenth century, many at first claimed that it would make the tone cold and artificial, as opposed to the warm sound of instruments with a "natural" wooden frame. 

However, technology has played an integral and indispensable part in the history of the piano. When George Bernard Shaw stated that, "The Pianoforte is the most important of all musical instruments. Its invention was to music what the invention of printing was to poetry," he was not making an idle simile, but aptly comparing one highly sophisticated machine that made the printed word widely accessible with another that made music widely accessible.1 The piano developed quickly during mid-eighteenth-century England, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. The mass production and factory methods of this age helped make pianos widely available to more people, increasing their popularity. Numerous mechanical gadgets such as the once popular Chiroplast were created in order to master the rapidly changing instrument. During the early part of the twentieth century, player pianos-the earliest tools to record the great masters of the keyboard-rivaled the sales of non-player pianos.

In the current age of high-speed Internet and wireless communications, it seems only natural that the piano continues to develop and that new technologies are discovered to help pianists communicate with audiences. 

My journey

My introduction to the Yamaha Disklavier (www.yamaha.com) took place in 2007 when I was asked to present it in Canada. I was vaguely familiar with the instrument as a sort of high-tech player piano, but my knowledge did not run much deeper than that. Preparing the presentation gave me an opportunity to become more closely acquainted with this fascinating instrument. 

The Disklavier Mark IV is a classic acoustic Yamaha piano with carbon steel strings, felt hammers, 88 keys, a soundboard, and a wooden cabinet. It is also a high-tech player piano containing a built-in hard drive that can store 80GB of recorded piano performances, which are saved as MIDI data.

The Disklavier Mark IV is equipped with fiber optic technology that enables it to record and play back up to an astounding 1,023 levels of hammer velocity and 256 increments of pedaling. It can reproduce a performance that is 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 converted to MIDI data. It is actually possible to listen to Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, and Glenn Gould play in your living room, on your own piano. 

With the recording features of the Disklavier, musicians no longer have to rely on the often-questionable sound quality of a minidisc or MP3 recorder. Instead they can hear their performance coming directly from the acoustic piano itself. In addition, by manipulating the instrument's playback tempo, volume, and transposition features, the listener can compare how a piece would sound at a different speed or vol- ume, and singers can have their accompaniment transposed to any key. 

Technology in concert

Working with the Disklavier whet my appetite to give a concert using its features. In March 2008, I organized an event called A Solo Ensemble, which was presented in the salon at Yamaha Artist Services, Inc., in New York City. The premise came from an amusing thought of trying to find the ideal ensemble partner: one who phrases and paces just like you, whose interpretation is an uncanny complement of your own, and who wants to practice when you do, in the way that you do, and as much as you do. Of course, such a "perfect" (vanity permitting) partner can only be found in someone who must, quoting Professor Higgins from My Fair Lady, "...be like me! "

For this concert, I programmed a collection of works for piano four-hands, two pianos, piano and voice, and a piano concerto. With the exception of one singer, soprano Jennifer Beattie, I was the sole live performer.

In order to perform the works for piano duo I learned both parts, pre-recorded one part on the Disklavier, and then performed the other part live along with it. In the case of the piece for piano and voice, Ms. Beattie sang to my prerecorded accompaniment, and finally, I performed the concerto with a MIDI orchestra. 

Lisa Yui rehearses an ensemble piece at the Disklavier. Note the second part playing on the top half of the keyboard.

Is this a legitimate ensemble
performance? 

 

I can understand why many musicians might have reservations programming a concert such as this. Doesn't the pre-recorded material take away one of the greatest aspects of ensemble playing: the live interaction among musicians? If one of the parts is pre-recorded, is this truly an ensemble performance? Is it a legitimate performance of any sort?

To accept the idea of someone performing over a pre-recorded part, one must understand that the result is neither a completely live performance nor a recording, but a hybrid of the two. A Solo Ensemble combined elements of both to create a result closer t o my own ideal.

The technique of overdubbing has been used constantly for many years in pop culture. In 1991, Natalie Cole created a stir when she recorded Unforgettable in a virtual duet with a recording of Nat King Cole, her long-deceased father. On film, numerous actors have used similar technology to convincingly depict twins, from Bette Davis in the 1946 film, A Stolen Life, to Jeremy Irons' brilliant performance as the Mantle twins in Dead Ringers more than forty years later.

Even in classical music, overdubbing is not a new idea. In their compact disc recording of the Mendelssohn String Quartets, the Emerson Quartet included Mendelssohn's Octet, overdubbing their own playing. This recording won Grammy Awards in 2005 for Best Chamber Music Performance and Best Engineered Album (Classical).

In preparing A Solo Ensemble, I first learned all of the parts equally well. During .rehearsals, I recorded one part and played the other along with it, then switched parts, and repeated the process until I was satisfied with both parts. Only then did I finally make the actual recording of "my partner." In the performance, I had no control over the recorded part and had to react as if I was performing with a live partner. I discovered that this process did not sacrifice musical integrity; on the contrary, I gained a broader understanding than I could ever get by learning only one of the parts. 

A concerto of one

 

I also performed the Haydn Piano Concerto in D Major using Home Concert Xtreme, a score-following program created by Time Warp Technologies (www.timewarptech.com). Using this program, one can learn, practice, and perform piano concerti with a MIDI accompaniment that follows the pianist's tempi and dynamics exactly. When used along with an excellent orchestral sound sample library, such as Garritan Personal Orchestra (www.garritan.com) the accompaniment can sound quite realistic.

I prepared the orchestral parts using a MIDI sequencer called Cubase published by Steinberg (www.steinbergnorthamerica.com). I first entered each part using a MIDI keyboard controller. Using Cubase's editing tools on my computer, I easily adjusted the balance, phrasings, tempi, and expression of the various parts. I found that undertaking this task was a wonderful way to learn the orchestral score much more deeply than simply practicing with a second piano accompaniment.

The concert was highly enjoyable to prepare and to present. It was not a "technology event," it was simply another concert. Since that evening, I have been considering other ways in which I can use the Disklavier in performance. A colleague has suggested a single, interwoven concert involving myself and another pianist performing in different locations, using the Internet to connect our Disklavier pianos and our audiences.

The possibilities are limitless. In the past, innovative composers, performers, and instrument makers have applied new technologies to the piano, thus driving its development. Perhaps our exploitation of current technology will help us write the next chapter. 

Lisa Yui, a Yamaha artist, is the winner of the first Super Classic Audition and the Senigallia International Piano Competition. Her performances, lectures, and master classes have taken her throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. She has performed as soloist with major orchestras since the age of seven, including the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Polish National R adio Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and Krakow State Philharmonic. Ms. Yui has been on the faculties of The Juilliard School and Marymount Manhattan College, and she currently serves on the faculty of the Manhattan School ofMusic. (http://lisayui.com) 

Technology, multimedia, and live performance

by Angelin Chang

Classically-trained pianists understand that there is no substitute for a great acoustic piano that you can sink your hands into. The finest instruments respond to your subtle touches, and their sound accurately reflects the interpretations you create.

Although the piano has a 300-plus year history and its mechanical innovations have been tweaked over the centuries, it has basically remained the same during most of the twentieth century. During that time it has seemed as though instrumental innovations of importance to classical musicians were few and far between.

However, with the development of Yamaha's Disklavier technology and similar technologies from Bosendorfer (www.boesendorfer.com), PianoDisc (www.pianodisc.com), and QRS (www.qrsmusic.com), an excellent acoustic piano can be combined with twenty- first-century computer-based technologies, opening up a world of new possibilities for this Classic instrument. Discerning pianists appreciate the fact that the addition of these new technologies does not compromise the artistic integrity of the instrument. These modern technology-equipped pianos still provide the physical sensitivity of the keys, the familiar touch, the vibration of the strings, and the other mechanics of a high-quality acoustic piano while adding additional features such as MIDI, record/playback, remote control, Internet connectivity, and more.

Among other things, the technology-equipped piano opens up the possibility of multimedia performances of compositions by the masters that have until now remained the province of connoisseurs. Having played the piano in its "classic" modes since childhood, it took me no time to deploy special Disklavier features in order to explore new horizons in making, sharing, and teaching classical music.

Angelin Chang is a GRAMMY® Award winning pianist and Professor of Piano at Cleveland State University, where she is Coordinator of Keyboard Studies and Coordinator for Chamber Music. She is the first American awarded Premiers Prix in both piano and chamber music from the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris (France) during the same year. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University - Peabody Institute (D.M.A.), Indiana University (M.M./Performer's Certificate), Ball State University (B.M.), and Interlochen Arts Academy. In addition to being the first Artist- in-Residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., Angelin Chang is Yamaha's first Academic Performing Artist. 

Visual learning

Given the fact that studies show that over 65 percent of the people today are visual learners, I have often wondered how music could be shared visually. How exciting it would be to be able to engage various senses when presenting the great masterpieces. Multimedia provides that opportunity by merging musical and visual art forms. While the sounds of a musical performance can probe the emotional depths of a person in a most direct and poignant manner, visual elements offer other dimensions of immediate accessibility and stimulation.

When I was a young student in Muncie, Indiana, my piano teacher, Pia Sebastiani, had given some multimedia performance presentations of the Debussy Preludes using an accompanying slideshow of various French artwork of the era. I also recall going to the Muncie Symphony Orchestra's Young People's symphony concerts, where Holst's Planets were performed in a dimly lit auditorium to create a planetarium effect with projections of the solar system on the blank walls and ceiling overhead. I had long envisioned providing these types of multimedia offerings to my own audiences. After learning about the Disklavier and its possibilities, I was ready to realize this dream. 

Trying multimedia

Innovative performance opportunities came to me by way of the Ingenuity Festival for Arts and Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, which promotes links between the classic arts and technology. A Disklavier piano, computers, cameras, and the ingenuity of many professionals came together to create an unprecedented musical event for the city. I teamed up with a videographer, video projection specialist, and a motion graphics artist to create a multimedia interpretation of the Bach-Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A Minor and Schumann's Papillons, both of which I performed on the piano. Traditional compositions met twenty-first-century technologies, bringing art and science together to create a new performance.

Instead of using existing artwork for this project, I wanted to show how different art forms could creatively merge and be interactive with technology. My hope was to allow the audience's own imaginations and creative images to develop, instead of dictating what they "should" see or imagine.

For me, a sign of great art and musical performance is the existence of multiple layers. A person who experiences a work several times should be able to gain different perspectives on each occasion. For music performance, this means that concertgoers with various degrees of experience and appreciation can all get some- thing out of the performance. For me as an educator, this is an important goal: to have depth and breadth in what is presented so that novices and connoisseurs can all have positive experiences. 

Visual art

 The visual materials were original creations by a motion graphics artist, Qian Li (www.qiandesign.com). an art professor at Cleveland State University and the curator of the CSU Art Museum. Prior to the multimedia concert projects, Professor Li and I had collaborated on some two-dimensional design projects. Her "paper" designs appealed to me because they embodied a sense of motion, which I associate with music. The obvious next step was to animate and coordinate her work with the music that I had chosen to play.

For each multimedia performance, I performed on the piano in a normal fashion. However, there was also a computer connected both to the piano (by MIDI) and to the video equipment that simultaneously produced the abstract art images that danced on the projection screen. While they listened, the audience concurrently experienced evocative visual images that opened them up to the music on many levels.

The technology I used in performance to trigger these original, visual creations included the software programs Home Concert Xtreme and Arkaos VJ (www.arkaos. net) working with a Disklavier concert grand piano. Although a digital keyboard with MIDI capabilities would have been sufficient to use with these programs, the Disklavier allowed me to perform without sacrificing the acoustic quality and touch of a high-quality instrument.

I ran Home Concert Xtreme on a Macintosh, which was linked to the Disklavier. As I played the Disklavier, Home Concert Xtreme tracked my performance, reading the music as I played and following me perfectly. Even if I altered the tempo or played with rubato, the software accurately tracked my playing. In some ways this software functioned like a CPS, with the pianist "driving" the piano, the musical score functioning as a "map," and an on-screen cursor indicating the current location.

When I played certain keys on the piano, Home Concert Xtreme recognized the notes and communicated with Arkaos VJ, which, in turn, triggered the images displayed on the screen. In short, the correct images would appear to the audience based on my current location in the music. 

Since the visuals were motion graphics (with each video clipper-formed live), there was always a chance that the timing of the visuals for a particular musical segment could differ one performance to the next. However, practice and painstaking adjustments to the visual material ensured that everything was coordinated properly.

This mixture of the sounds of classical music with cutting edge visual technology created a unique concert experience. As I played the piano, coordinated visual "translations" were projected on a large-scale backdrop. This created an intimate, multi-sensory experience that mesmerized the audience. 

Audience feedback

The response of the audience demonstrated that people belonging to different age groups with differing understandings of classical music were able to relate to and appreciate this new art form. The probing questions from the members of the audience, asked in the extensive question and answer sessions that followed the performances, showed how deeply they were impacted by this audiovisual rendition of classical compositions.

The multimedia performances also provided the opportunity to bring more people into the fold. The marriage of art and technology enabled us to project the audio-visual presentation onto large screens at the public square outside the performance hall. Since the performances were standing room only, the outdoor displays enabled those who could not find room inside the theater to still partake of the event.

These audio-visual performances created quite a buzz. With almost 200 other activities and events of the festival, the multimedia performances became a signature event. By popular demand, we were invited to give repeat performances, which garnered media interest. 

Such experiences lead me to believe that the introduction of the Disklavier, Home Concert Xtreme, and the merging of multimedia innovations open up even more possibilities of collaborative music making. And, this approach to performance also provides opportunities to get classical music out to audiences that are accustomed to twenty-first-century modes of communication. A new chapter in the history of music has been opened; let's see where it goes next!
 

Tech Tips

by George Litterst

 

Submit your questions to this column by sending them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Q: What are my options for reading music and turning pages on a computer display?

Times are still changing! Laptop computers are common and affordable. You can get a new one for as little as $300. And, we now see a growing number of flat-panel devices for reading books and newspapers, such as the famous Kindle from Amazon (www.amazon.com/kindle). These devices make you wonder why musicians are still reading music from paper displays.

Actually, there are lots of musicians who have migrated to a computer-type display for reading music.Just watch an episode of From the Top (www.fromthetop.org). It is not uncommon to see host Christopher O'Riley (www.christopheroriley.com) reading music from a laptop that sits on top of the piano.

There are a few solutions for displaying music electronically and then turning the pages at the right time. The general idea is this: The music is scanned and saved as a PDF file or is exported from a music notation program in PDF format. A software program is then used to open the file and present it on a computer screen or a dedicated music reading device. A foot pedal is used to turn the pages.

FreeHand Systems, Inc. (www.freehandsystems.com) developed a dedicated, flat panel music reader. The flat panel display can be mounted on a stand or can be placed on a piano's music desk. You use your computer to copy electronic music files to the device, and you use a simple foot pedal for turning pages. The display software has options for half-page turns as well as for writing on the score using a mouse or computer stylus. 

AirTurn, Inc. (www.airturn.com) offers a Macintosh- and PC-compatible software program called MusicReader that displays PDF files on your computer screen. It, too, offers options for annotating the score.

AirTurn also has a hardware device called AirTurn AT-I04 that enables you to turn the pages on your computer screen. (See a review of the AT-I04 in the Sept/Oct 2009 issue of Clavier Companion). Smaller than a deck of cards, the AirTurn AT-I04 is a wireless device that sits on the floor and communicates with a USB dongle that you plug into your computer. Plug one or two pedals into the AirTurn AT-I04, and you are ready to turn pages wirelessly.

The AirTurn AT-I04 sends page-ahead and page-back commands to the computer and can be used to turn pages in any program that responds to those commands, such as Acrobat Reader, Preview (Apple's PDF reader), PowerPoint, Keynote, and AirTurn's Music Reader.

If you are performing on a piano that has MIDI output, you can connect the piano to your computer via MIDI interface and use the piano's pedals for turning pages in many programs. All you have to do is tell the computer to interpret the MIDI signals sent by the pedals as page- ahead and page-back commands. Bome's Midi Translator (www.bome.com) for Macintosh and Windows provides these features and more.

Of course, if you are using one of your piano's pedals to turn pages, you should select a pedal that is not going to be used to play your pieces! Most of the time, the sostenuto pedal is a good choice for turning to the next page. 

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