by carl wilson

Don't Re-Shoot the Piano Player


This week's "Overtones" - a defence of "datedness," played off against a company that's found a way to recreate and re-record historic piano performances mechanically - has the cleverest headline the editors have given me all year, although actually I wasn't saying don't do it, just not to dismiss the original recordings. After all, in Zenph Studios' Disklavier renditions of Glenn Gould, does the piano hum? [...]

Don't re-shoot the piano player

The Globe and Mail
Saturday, June 25, 2005

Last week in New York, humankind began to close the gap between concert and séance. A tiny North Carolina software company demonstrated a process that lets you attend "live" performances by dead piano players.

"You will hear," said my invitation from Zenph Studios, "Glenn Gould (1932-1982) perform excerpts from Bach's Goldberg Variations just as he did in 1955; Art Tatum (1909-1956) playing Too Marvellous for Words from a live 1955 party recording; and French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) play a Chopin Prelude as he played it first in 1926. . . . Please let us know what day and time works for you."

Okay, I thought, what about Nov. 21, 1963, so I could prevent the Kennedy assassination while I was at it?

But Zenph hadn't invented a time machine. Nor would a zombie Gould be sitting at the piano. What the company's president John Q. Walker has developed is a computer program that analyzes old recordings and maps a performance's unique traits. The results are fed into a computerized player piano called a Disklavier, which then moves its keys and pedals with the force and duration used by the original musician.

Walker intends to use the Disklavier to make new recordings of music that can now only be heard from old 78s or wax cylinders. What's more, he told The New York Times, when you've analyzed enough of one musician you can generate "rules" about their style. And then your automated Gould could interpret whatever piece you wanted: "Here's Robot Glenn with Takin' Care of Business."

It's a great tool for scholarship. Art Tatum's super-speed jazz improvisations, for instance, all but defy transcription by ear.

But the worms this computerized can-opener unleashes are legion. Once this necrophiliac breakthrough is expanded to other instruments, will living musicians have to compete for concertgoers with ghostly greats? Robot Beatles reunion tours seem inevitable.

But what bothers me most is that the Zenph approach falls in with a common disdain in North American culture for the pastness of the past.

"The fundamental root of the problem is that I don't want to hear a recording," Walker told the Times. Zenph boasts that its method removes "not only noise, hiss and distortion, but even the recording equipment and the quality of the piano itself."

But the recording conditions, a particular piano, even the hiss, are part of the music's baggage, and any re-recorded re-enactment is less rich without them. Recordings are artifacts, and it's fine by me if they sound it.

The tinniness of a 1940s recording is enjoyably different than the dampness of a 1970s one, just as film stock looks different from one decade to another or the pigments of a Renaissance painting are different from a Cézanne, not just in style but because the materials changed.

When Zenph's process was reported in New Scientist magazine, excited readers wrote in saying that further elaborations of the idea could let you re-shoot The Maltese Falcon with virtual actors, according to an exact blueprint. Or repaint the Mona Lisa. But why would you?

Classic songs are often called "timeless" but that doesn't sound to me like praise, any more than "placeless" would. I like the way early Louis Armstrong records sound like 1926. It makes 1926 less abstract, to picture the crude machinery that surrounded him and his Hot Five in a jammed studio in Chicago, making milestones on limited means.

When people complain a record is dated, or often "laughably dated," they're missing half the fun. Old hits seal in wax endangered slang ("you make everything groovy") and social history ("Tin soldiers and Nixon's comin' ").

And each period has its sonic signatures, too. The big Linn drums and DX7 keyboards of 1980s ballads are as much a birthmark as the string sections of the early 1960s or the wah-wah guitar of the 1970s.

All music becomes dated eventually. In defiance of pop slogans about staying forever young, all that is new and hot becomes old and tepid.

The most innovative productions are often the first to go, because new technologies tend to dictate limited vocabularies. In recent years the presets on the Pro Tools software used to digitally edit music have left their chilly, wobbly fingerprints all over the charts (as heard on any Britney Spears single 2001 to present and any number of others).

But even simple acoustic songs will sound out-of-date in 20 years. Ultimately, as Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) said in a panel discussion in Toronto last week, "Software does lock you into an environment, but every artist is already locked into an environment -- their own creativity." Those limits, too, will eventually out.

Conversely, even the most outré sound can be revived. "Lounge" musicians like Martin Denny and Burt Bacharach made a comeback in the 1990s when a new generation recognized the willful audacity of their compositions, once the rock music that had made them sound like cornballs became dated in itself.

Sampling has made it easier to appreciate how these sounds form links of association, and chatter back and forth among themselves. Will today's postmodern pastiches, which tend to treat time as a more non-linear continuum, be less apt to go mouldy?

I bet the way the samples are treated and juxtaposed will betray their vintage. No doubt the Disklavier recordings will soon sound dated too.

People recoil at datedness because it calls attention to the material, to the music's construction -- technically and socially. It messes up the fantasy that music is somehow a direct, unmediated hotline to the soul. And it's an unwelcome reminder that like every trendy sound, every trendy musician dies eventually, and every listener too, with no computerized séance to bring us back.

But at a greater distance, datedness simply becomes history. No one is annoyed that Dickens novels, Bruegel paintings and Bach fugues reek of the periods when they were made. They hitchhike in from that distant country, the past, speaking its garbled dialect, yet still move us in their bizarre, out-of-date, oh-so-human ways.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 26 at 9:53 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)



maybe you missed this 5 years ago ...

and the computer/Gould piece on the plunderphonic cd ?

in any event, you are not alone ...

nice site !
kutgw !

Posted by dark_matter on July 5, 2005 3:36 PM



Great piece! This expresses so nicely what I've always felt (rather hazily) about datedness.

(To be anal, though, I don't think it's quite the "presets" of ProTools that have left their fingerprints all over the charts. It's the use of PT to manually edit every rhythmic element with extreme precision, rendering all "performances" kind of moot. The presets of Autotune, however, have definitely left some fingerprints....)

Posted by andrew on June 27, 2005 8:56 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson