Saturday, August 30, 2014

Behind the Scenes with Jim Leahy

The aurora borealis over the site of  2014 Yamaha e-Competition
This week we went behind the scenes with Jim Leahy, a long-time member of the Yamaha Remote Live team.  Jim records live music events for broadcast on DisklavierTV and captures studio performances for our PianoSoft library. This summer Jim traveled to Alaska to record the finals of the Yamaha e-Competition, then crossed the country to film a series of performances at the Newport Music Festival in Newport, Rhode Island.

We caught up with Jim in a rare free moment at the Yamaha headquarters in Buena Park. 

You filmed two classical music events this summer. Tell us a bit about the Yamaha e-Competition.

The e-Competition is an amazing annual event made possible by the power of the Disklavier piano. Competitors are recorded via video and Disklavier technology for judges to assess, then the finalists come together for a live competition. The completion is also broadcast live, which gives the customer the opportunity to view a piano competition as if they were viewing a multi-day sporting event. This is the world cup of piano competitions. Pele can’t kick the ball in your living room, but these performers are actually playing the Disklavier in your house.

For the artist, the experience is completely transparent. We use light-beam technology to measure the velocity and duration of each key strike, so all the artist knows is that they are playing an exquisite piano. This year we were recording with a Mark IV Concert Grand and every artist loved the piano, even the judges were blown away by the instrument.

What was your favorite part of filming the e-Competition?

Working with the team that I travel with. As hard as the work is, it’s still worth it working with these guys - technicians who are at the top of their field. From an artistic perspective, I’m always amazed at the high quality of performance that we are able to obtain from around the world, year after year. I would not want to be a judge for this competition! We kept saying that, the whole team, “I would not want to be a judge for this.” The artists are world class.

The competition is normally held in Minnesota, was there anything special about filming in Alaska?

Walking outside at two in the morning to full afternoon sun was incredible. Of course, after a while 24 hours of sun starts to get to you. When you first arrive there’s a bit of a wow factor. But after a while you’re piling things against the windows to get to sleep. It is better than the alternative. We could have had 24 hours of darkness and 40 degrees below zero. I’ll take the sun.

Also, the aurora was stunning. The last day we were there, it was 2:00am after we finished breaking down the equipment and we were getting ready drive to the airport. We walked outside and saw the aurora borealis lighting up half the sky. It was grueling breaking down before a 4am flight, but in that moment it was all worth it.

How was your experience with Newport different than your experience shooting the e-Competition?

Newport is a Festival rather than a competition, so there’s a whole different energy. At the e-Competition there’s this young, vibrant atmosphere created by new artists playing to win. At Newport these are established artists performing for an appreciative audience that loves what they’ve already accomplished.

There’s a lot of drive for the e-Competition, we’re shooting all day, sometimes wrapping at midnight. At Newport we have more downtime.

Did you face any challenges capturing either of these events?

When our airline misplaced our luggage – including the four professional cameras we brought for the shoot in Newport – we had to MacGyver our own camera setup. The guys were so resourceful, they made a series of black boxes to cover iPads and borrowed cameras for the first day of the shoot. It felt very Apollo 13.

Music stands make excellent tripods, who knew?
iPad? Check. Electrical tape? Check. We're good to go!

What is your history with the Newport Music Festival?

I’ve been traveling to Newport since 1991, so I’ve been spending the summer in Rhode Island for a lot of years. We have a long-standing relationship with the festival. Yamaha has been providing Disklavier pianos to Newport for over twenty years and many of the artists that we record at Newport come into our studio to expand the Yamaha library with some amazing PianoSoft studio performances.

 To start with, we were just recording amazing music for Yamaha’s vast library. In the late 2000s we started using the Remote Live technology to broadcast the Newport festival – but the things I love about Newport have never changed. It’s a pleasure to listen to world class musicians playing beautiful music in the most beautiful venues you can imagine. That’s such a huge part of why I look forward to capturing these experiences every year.

We’d like to thank Jim for sharing his continued passion for Remote Live, the Disklavier piano, and the music that makes this technology great.