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Critic's Notebook

Ghosts in the machine

In digital ‘re-performances,’ what do we hear?

Cellist Zuill Bailey records a piece of music to be included in the latest Zenph ‘‘re-performance’’ release
Cellist Zuill Bailey records a piece of music to be included in the latest Zenph ‘‘re-performance’’ release(ZENPH)

“My next guest, I’m sorry to say, is dead.’’

Violinist Joshua Bell was addressing an audience gathered at New York’s Lincoln Center last year, and he wasn’t joking. Bell went on to perform a movement of a Grieg violin sonata alongside a Steinway grand that appeared to be playing itself, keys and pedals in motion, lofting up a refined, aristocratic pianism of a bygone era. It was in fact the touch of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943.

The performance, broadcast nationally on “Live From Lincoln Center,’’ was a banner moment for Zenph, a North Carolina-based company that has pioneered a wizardly technology of “re-performances.’’ Zenph analyzes all the attributes of old piano recordings - from the finest nuances of tempo to the precise speed of key strikes - and processes them digitally, enabling them to re-create an older performance on a modern computer-guided piano. The music has been separated from the dated recording technologies, as Zenph puts it. Rachmaninoff need no longer sound as if he were playing through the telephone from mother Russia. The company says its re-performances allow a listener to feel “as if he or she were there when the original recording was made.’’

It’s a seductive fantasy, if also an unsettling one. Could music reverse-engineered in this manner really capture a great artist’s personality, and even if so, what would it mean to wrest these performances from the protective crackle of the past? Zenph has been issuing re-performance discs since 2007 at a pace of roughly one a year, but this fall it announced the launch of its own Zenph Studios label. The time seemed right to listen through the re-performance catalog - a process that allayed some of my fears, confirmed a few early reservations, and sparked new questions about exactly what we listen for in old and new recordings, and just how forcefully the artistic past should be encouraged to inhabit the present, even in a field as reverent of tradition as classical music.

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Zenph’s earliest release was a bold one, a re-performance of Glenn Gould’s legendary 1955 account of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.’’ The older mono sound of course was gone, as was Gould’s signature singing with the music - always a distraction for some listeners, yet for others a source of genial connection to the humanity behind the whir of notes. Next came discs of piano re-performances by Art Tatum and Rachmaninoff. The newest release, out last month, offers music by the Spanish masters Albeniz, Granados, and Falla, including re-performed solo accounts by the composers themselves, and some more collaborations between the living (cellist Zuill Bailey and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian) and the dead (Falla, 1876-1946).

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As a technological feat, it’s rather stunning how closely these recordings match the detail and overall personality of their predecessors. Listening side-by-side with the original historic recordings whenever possible, I found only subtle difference in the relative crispness of a passing piano attack, or the sense of magnetic pull between notes. Champions of this new technology will no doubt argue that whatever small departures exist in a re-performance are a negligible price for what is gained in clarity and presence of sound. Indeed, for those listeners reflexively turned off by the surface hiss, the blurring of details, the thinness of sound, and other limitations of old recordings, this may be exactly the technology they’ve been waiting for. Also as an educational tool, a means to provide students with an up-close view of early recorded history, its potential is vast.

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Nevertheless for me, the Zenph re-performances end up creating far more cognitive dissonance than the dated sound ever did. We know intellectually the distance these notes have traveled, and yet the fully rounded crystalline modern sound belies that sense of journey. Surface hiss after all is not only a veil covering the music. Because recording fidelity steadily increased throughout the 20th century, the distortions we hear on older recordings also become a kind of aural representation of our temporal distance. Adapting the phrase of the poet Osip Mandelstam, we might call those surface imperfections the noise of time.

Of course, one’s reaction to the re-performances will partly come down to matters of taste. I hear so much more charm and poetry in the faded edges and distant, tinny piano sound of Enrique Granados performing his “Danzas Españolas’’ in 1912 than in Zenph’s brilliantly Technicolor re-performance of the same pieces.

Zenph’s pairing of living performers with the dead would seem more troublesome. To begin with, what of those original musicians now effectively airbrushed out of the picture? When Bell’s performance with Rachmaninoff was released by Sony Classical, the disc barely mentioned the violinist on the original recording, Fritz Kreisler.

As it happens, Kreisler’s performance with Rachmaninoff was superior to Bell’s, but it was also not a remotely fair competition, since Kreisler’s partner at the piano, in Berlin in 1928, was actually alive and responding in real time, forging a joint interpretation of Grieg’s sonata. One might even be so bold as to suggest this as a kind of minimum condition for making real chamber music: that both players be alive and in the same room. Zenph instead gives us a kind of high-end version of the old music-minus-one. This cannot work as art, just as surely as it cannot fail as a kind of time-travel kitsch.

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Taking a momentary break from the land of re-performances, I downloaded this week an iPhone app called Vinyl Love. Think of it as a kind of anti-Zenph. Visually, it fills your phone’s screen with the image of a spinning LP on a phonograph, and it gives you vintage record bins for flipping through your digital music files. Most importantly, it adds to all your pristinely modern tracks the hiss and crackle of old records, a kind of fake layering of the noise of time that no doubt conjures for some users warm remembrances of vinyl past.

Tricks like this one have long been available to recording artists working with samples and playing with found sounds. I confess that at a time when the technology in our lives becomes obsolete at frightening speeds, I found the puerile pleasures of temporarily aging one’s MP3s to be strangely addicting, a tiny act of personal rebellion against the self-certainty of the myth that newer is always better. Of course, the ironies are also blaringly obvious: I am running this app on a slim and gleaming iPhone. The march of technological progress has co-opted even our own ambivalence about itself. So much for tiny acts of rebellion.

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In distilling such contrasting impulses, Zenph and Vinyl Love make a striking pair: one giving you the performances of the distant past as a new release, the other giving you new releases as if they’ve come from the distant past. What to make of these warring drives?

The composer Stan Link has pointed out that a recording can be approached in two very different ways: as a firsthand experience of sound on its own terms, or as a document of an earlier event, a souvenir, necessarily encountered at some distance. In the first scenario, any hiss or distortions get in the way of the experience, like smudges in a glass window. But if the recording is the document, the noise actually helps us remember this fact, affirming what the brain already knows: that sound is ephemeral and that this moment took place in an irretrievable past. Zenph and Vinyl Love are therefore in a way both patently artificial means of achieving the same end: making a recording feel real. It just depends on your definition of authenticity.

Another helpful distinction may come from the writer and Harvard scholar Svetlana Boym, who has identified two types of nostalgia: a “reflective’’ and a “restorative’’ variety. Reflective nostalgia gives voice to ambivalences about modern life without seeking to turn the clocks back. Restorative nostalgia “does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition.’’ It seeks “a return to origins.’’ Vinyl Love and kindred efforts are clearly born of a reflective nostalgia, a glance cast backward, whether yearningly or ironically. Zenph’s re-performances suggest a restorative nostalgia at work, a kind of digital irredentism, using wildly futuristic means to reclaim the territory of the past.

One wonders, too, about classical music’s longstanding golden age syndrome, in which present-day performers already live deep in the shadow of the demigods of yore. More of those past luminaries may soon have not only shiny new recordings to help reassert their presence, but also increasing opportunities for “live’’ competition.

In February in Dallas, the ghost of George Gershwin will be the soloist in a performance of his “Rhapsody in Blue’’ with the Dallas Wind Symphony. Zenph is also now working on applying its re-performance technology to other instruments, beginning with the bass but aiming far beyond that. Meanwhile Zenph has dropped hints it might one day be able to gather enough data from Gould’s past performances to extrapolate from what it has learned, so that Gould might “re-perform’’ a piece he never recorded during his lifetime. The head begins to spin. Keeping up with a cyborg Gould might seem like the stuff of a living pianist’s darkest nightmares.

Zenph’s ambitions and its clear technological virtuosity ultimately raise a larger set of questions about how far classical music should go in realizing its own recuperative dreams, or whether the recorded past should be allowed to recede gracefully, its triumphs heard at a distance that is perhaps more resonant for being somehow true. Perhaps it’s only fitting to give one of our ghost pianists the last word. Commenting on the evolution of recording technology in 1931, Rachmaninoff was thrilled that a musician could finally leave behind a credible and lasting document of his otherwise fleeting art. Yet he saw recordings as a kind of consolation for a more basic truth: “Of all our own music-making silence must some day be the end.’’


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.