I went to an Elton John concert tonight. It was not my first, but it was definitely my strangest. He was not in the same hall with me, not in the same city even. I was in my friend’s house and he was on the big screen TV, but he was also playing the Yamaha grand piano in their living room. While this phenomenon should surely have been possible for decades now, this type of concert had only been demonstrated during the last six months using their Disclavier keyboard and the Remote Live system.
So what? Fancy schmancy keyboard owners get to see their machine played by a pro, it’s just like a player piano, right? Maybe. I have to say that there was something a bit magical, somewhat spiritual and definitely just plain weird for me in this experience. The word “disintermediated” kept forming on my lips. I wasn’t even sure what it meant and had to look it up. The online Webster’s lists the #2 definition (the first having to do with bank interest) as “the elimination of an intermediary in a transaction between two parties.”
Hmmm, that seemed to have some significance for me. The transaction is obviously music. Typically, performed through the manual manipulation by one or more humans and absorbed through the vibrational receptors (ears, skin, body) of others. This transaction can be free, as in music from buskers in the park or a home concert, or through a financial transaction: paying for concert tickets, buying an LP, 8-track, cassette, CD or MP3. For rock stars like Elton this is typically a one to many experience. Elton records an album (like “Elton John” in 1970, the same year he also released the astounding “Tumbleweed Connection”) and millions of us buy it, a mediated transaction involving recording studios, record companies, retailers, broadcasters, etc.
But here’s the thing: I’ve spent the time since I was twelve learning to play Elton’s songs on piano and imitate his vocal stylings. And tonight I felt him literally tickling the ivories while I rested my fingers on the keys. I will be 52 this spring, so that means for forty years I have been playing in his finger-steps, singing his songs, introducing them to young audiences, reaping nostalgia out of old ones, hosting sing alongs of Rocket Man and Tiny Dancer (two of the only five songs he played tonight.) I’ve been interpreting them from a great distance. Tonight was the elimination of an intermediary in a transaction between two parties.
Tonight, I laid my hands on the keys while he played Tiny Dancer and something strange transpired. I felt like his hands were caressing mine, or that we were playing the keys together. I knew how to play the song, but he was varying it with his lifetime of styling and interpretation. I could learn how he interpreted it as if he were guiding my fingers through the song. It was a powerful disintermediated experience (albeit possible only for those with these expensive technologies in their living rooms.)
“And I think its gonna be a long long time” was his refrain and the years seemed to collapse between my first live concert of his in 1974 and the leaps that technology has taken, and the strange, strange world we are living in now where rock stars tickle the ivories in our parlors removing all the intervening stages that music has taken since the days when every good home had a piano and family members ran down to the general store to purchase the newest sheet music of the ragtime hits and new how to play them after dinner.