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Player Piano Enters a New Age at UCSD

July 27, 1988|KENNETH HERMAN

LA JOLLA — In a memorable scene from the current movie "Big," Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia dance out "Heart and Soul" on a giant electronic keyboard at New York City's grandest toy emporium, F.A.O. Schwarz. UC San Diego's own temple of musical toys is the Center for Music Experiment, although its wares--synthesizers, computers and other electronic gear--are for research and occasional display, not the consumer market.

Monday night, two of the center's computer jockeys, Bob Willey and Rick Bidlack, demonstrated their newest toy, a high-tech player piano called the Disklavier. Built by Yamaha Co., the instrument is a shiny black upright that works in tandem with a bank of computers and synthesizers. Controlled by the adjoining computers, the instrument can play by itself, it can be played as an acoustic piano, and it can be used as a synthesizer keyboard activating the gamut of electronic sounds to which it is connected.

In a realization of Conlon Nancarrow's Study No. 21, the Disklavier proved its immediate utility to perform the expatriate American composer's unique repertory. Although Nancarrow, who visited UCSD two years ago, has written the bulk of his complex mathematical music for the traditional mechanical player piano, the Disklavier provides a highly expedient performance medium.

Bidlack explained that Nancarrow may spend as much as a year hand-perforating the old-fashioned piano rolls for a piece, but Bidlack was able to program the same piece for the Disklavier in a mere two weeks.

Like much of Nancarrow's output, his Study No. 21 evoked a kind of eerie perpetuum mobile whose dazed finale concluded the piece with a whirlwind of rapid notes too dense to be realized by human hands at the keyboard.

Bidlack and Willey's own collaboration, a work called "Invisible Islands," paired the Disklavier with traditional synthesizer--as jarring as that appellation may seem--with moderate success. Their lush electronic sounds, lazily organized by motor rhythmic iterations, came as close to minimalist formulas as one is likely to find within spitting distance of the staunchly anti-minimalist UCSD music department.

Nevertheless, the harmonic simplicity and accessible style of "Invisible Islands" put it at some distance from the rigorous aspirations of most compositions produced in the university's shadow.

The duo revealed its sense of humor by using the theme music from the old "Perry Mason" television show as a prelude to the concert, allowing the Disklavier to play by remote control with no performer near the stage.

The concert's conclusion reverted to a pleasant but slightly indulgent set of straight-ahead jazz pieces by Tom North, assisted by Willey and percussionist Roy Tamanaha. The easygoing idiom, however, sounded refreshing in a recital hall that has, on occasion, witnessed some of the most trying and abstruse music to assault the human ear.

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