Disklavier Residency

Pianist Rachel Iwaasa and composer Farshid Samandari explore new compositions for disklavier piano.

The Disklavier at the Western Front is an early 1990′s model of the instrument still manufactured by Yamaha. It functions as a normal acoustic grand piano, but is also automated with MIDI capability to interface with computers or other devices to mechanically control the keys and hammers. Not unlike a modern version of a player piano, the Disklavier is a somewhat uncommon instrument that offers pianists and composers interesting ways to interface with an acoustic instrument supplemented by modern digital technology.

Western Front New Music conducted an interview with pianist Rachel Iwaasa and composer Farshid Samandari on January 26, 2011 during their weeklong residency researching and working with the Disklavier.

Western Front: What brought about your interest in working with the Disklavier?

Rachel Iwaasa: Initially there was a call for composers to write piano works with the Disklavier for the Sonic Boom Festival in March of 2011. We received no proposals or responses at all, so thought we’d take a closer look to research and demystify the instrument as we were interested in learning more about it ourselves.

Farshid Samandari: Yes, there is some interesting potential in using an instrument which is acoustic, but has more than one way to input information – a pianist and a computer – so this is intriguing to composers. It’s amusing and novel to some extent.

WF: After a few days of working here, what are some of the obstacles and challenges you’ve encountered in both a general sense with the Disklavier, but also this specific older model which has been at the Western Front for almost 20 years?

RI: The technology is indeed old and there was a challenge getting it to communicate with a modern laptop, but MIDI hasn’t really changed at all, so in that respect it’s still compatible. We also had to chase down the correctly formatted 3.5 floppy disks (which are obsolete) in order to store and read some data to and from the Disklavier. The acoustic portion of the piano works fine, maybe since it’s older and stable while the electronic portion is 20 years old – a very long time in digital technology.

FS: Like any other equipment if you don’t use it there is a chance that it may lose it’s vitality and reaction time, there were challenges with the regulation of the instrument. The piano part is used conventionally and regularly in concerts and the caliibration was fine. The electronic mechanism that controls the piano is not however used very often, so it’s harder to know what the condition of the unit is. It’s a very complex device that far exceeds the complexity of a regular piano and very few people in the city understand how it functions, so getting tech support is difficult.

RI: It’s an interesting thing marrying these two technologies. There’s the piano hardware and the electronic hardware and combining digital technology which becomes obsolete quite quickly to a very valuable acoustic instrument in a way ties you to a specific era of the digital age. Unlike now where upgrading is commonplace, it’s not possible to discard or upgrade this instrument, we are stuck with the limitations of a technology that ordinarily evolves quite quickly.

WF: How does this instrument affect your process as a performer? How do you approach working with a traditional instrument that also has these other strange capabilities?

RI: For me the interesting thing is to find things that I as a pianist can’t do on my own, but the whole technology and initial function of the Disklavier appears to have been designed to replicate what a pianist can already do. I feel that if a pianist can do it, then why bother with this extra level of technology?

WF: Isn’t that how these instruments were marketed? They were meant to bring the recorded performances of pianists to be enjoyed in the home on a real piano instead of listening to a CD.

FS: Yes. Our mindset is probably different from the creators who intended the instrument more for commercial use. For instance there is a limitation of 16 note polyphony which isn’t actually impossible for a single pianist. If you want to use it for something more interesting or complex, you may run into limitations quite quickly. This is one of our goals with the residency, to find these limitations built into the instrument by Yamaha and find ways to stretch and subvert the possibilities.

RI: One of these limitations affects the often used technique in contemporary new music of precise dynamic adjustment through the use of the pedals. For instance, playing some notes silently so the hammers do not strike the strings and holding down the sostenuto pedal to sustain the notes in order to get the strings to resonate without having played them. This will only work if those notes and no others are depressed when the sostenuto pedal is put in place. This limits where and how you can do that, so we’d like to find a way around that, but the Disklavier doesn’t record or recognize midi data for the silenced notes even though the Yamaha technicians told us it should be possible.

WF: An odd glitch.

FS: Also, using the external equipment we can record very soft notes, but not play them back at the correct dynamic since the MIDI value scale has set parameters of volume from 0-127. The lowest audible midi value of 1 is much louder than the softest sound a pianist can make and the highest midi value of 127 is no where near as loud as a pianist can play. A trained pianist can actually generate a much wider range of dynamics.

RI: A healthy forte, but not a fortissimo.

WF: So it’s the extremes of the dynamic range where the piano’s sensitivity is suspect.

RI: Sure. For regular, middle of the road playing it records and has no difficulty playing back accurately. It will record sostenuto as long as the notes actually sounded ahead of time even though the sensors that transmit midi data aren’t calibrated to detect sound at all, they are entirely dependent on motion and detection of a mechanical event. Strange that it won’t record the event unless a sound is made, yet it has no way of knowing if a sound even occurs.

WF: Your approach here is interesting in that both a composer and a pianist are working together with the Disklavier to determine some interesting compositional and performative possibilities. Often the work done on this instrument is solely by a composer…

RI: Eliminating the pianist!

WF: Yes, without the use of a performer, but here you are as a performing concert pianist working with this infernal mechanical proxy. As a pianist how do you approach this instrument? You don’t see it as infringing on your domain?

RI: I’m always interested in expanding what I do as a pianist whether it’s works with spoken word or video. This is just another way of expanding the piano and my approach to performing on it.

FS: We’re trying to explore the instrument in general rather than making a piece at this point. Hopefully some works will come out of this, but we want to learn the instrument and know clearly what is possible and what isn’t. We’re researching so it’s better to have a composer and a performer both working together. The pianist can reveal technical aspects of the performative nature of the Disklavier while a composer might uncover some other acoustic and technological approaches.