Trailing the Elusive Disklavier

I had five hours yesterday to program the Disklavier for Mark Morris’s dance Looky, which is being performed to my Disklavier music tonight. Had I had a clue how Disklavier technology has changed in the last few years, I would have known I didn’t need nearly so much. Yamaha used to employ a proprietary file format for the Disklavier. It wouldn’t read standard MIDI files; you had to record a special Disklavier file by playing a MIDI file from your computer. It took me, Mark’s excellent tech crew, and someone at Yamaha tech support two hours to learn that the new Disklavier grands won’t even record a MIDI file from a computer anymore, so we had spent a lot of time trying to do the impossible. Instead, the Disklavier can now read MIDI files directly – and once we realized that, all I had to do was burn a MIDI file to a CDR and pop it in. It worked beautifully at rehearsal last night – as easy as playing an mp3.

The thing is, Yamaha gives the impression that it works according to a completely utilitarian paradigm: it sells (or loans in this case) these marvelous computerized pianos to schools and performance spaces for purely workaday purposes, like recording song accompaniments and providing background music. They no longer provide a manual, there’s no how-to info on the internet, and the tech support people were difficult to reach because they were out traveling. There’s no assumption that someone might be trying to transfer a file from an old Disklavier to a new one, nor that anyone might be trying to do anything more elaborate than pressing “record” and playing a tune on the keyboard. The idea that a composer might actually write pieces for the instrument and tour with them doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. Still, now that Disklaviers read MIDI files they’ll be a lot more versatile to use, and with luck – as long as they don’t keep altering the way the thing works every year or so – I won’t run into any of these problems again.

Geez, there are 18 dancers in Looky! It’s like being played by a chamber orchestra, very exciting.