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[F_MINOR] Interesting Article
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Play It Again, Vladimir (via Computer)
New York Times, 5.6.5
By ANNE MIDGETTE
THE house lights dimmed at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in
Raleigh, N.C., one night last month, the stage lights came up on the
grand piano, and in front of a rapt audience Alfred Cortot played
Chopin's Prelude in G (Op. 28, No. 3), as he had not for nearly 80
Cortot is dead, of course. He was not present in physical form, nor
was anyone else sitting at the keyboard of the Yamaha Disklavier Pro
as the keys rose and fell. But this was his performance come back to
life: his gentle touch, his luminosity, even his mistakes, like the
light brush of an extra note at the periphery of the final chord.
So, at least, claimed Dr. John Q. Walker, the president of Zenph
Studios in Raleigh, which sponsored the event and created the software
that allowed Cortot to return. Dr. Walker is developing technology
that enables him to break down the sounds of an old recording,
digitize them and reproduce them on a Disklavier, an up-to-the-minute
player piano that can record and replay performances by means of a CD
in a slot above the keyboard. Sophisticated fiber optics control the
Old recordings of great performers are often marred by scratches and
surface noise, or by sound badly filtered through primitive
microphones. Dr. Walker is offering the same music with the immediacy
of live performance and the acoustical advantages of a contemporary
piano. To demonstrate the contrast, Dr. Walker also let the audience
at the BTI Center hear the original Cortot recording from 1926, which
sounds as if sand had been poured on the old disc's shellac.
"The farther you get from the recordings, the worse they sound," Dr.
Walker said by phone a few days before the concert. "The fundamental
root of the problem is that I don't want to hear a recording. I want
to hear the young Horowitz, Schnabel, Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk on
an in-tune piano."
If the claims he is making for his new technology are accurate, he
will soon be able to. His plan is to approach the major labels with
his software and delve into their back catalogs, acting as a record
producer to make old recordings new. Josef Hoffman without the
scratches, Glenn Gould without the mumbling: brought back to life and
performing on modern pianos, recorded with modern technology.
"People say this is like colorizing old photographs, but it's not,"
Dr. Walker said. "This process is like being able to set up the entire
scene of that photograph again and shoot it with a new camera from any
This is the new world of computer music. In its infancy, way back in
the 1960's, the goal was to use digital technology to create new
sounds and new musical forms. Today scientists around the world are
turning computers on human performance, seeking to quantify an element
once thought to be intangible: the expressivity of a human artist.
The piano is a good place to start. It offers a relatively limited set
of variables. With the violin, every aspect of sound production is
subject to human vagaries: bow pressure, bow speed, the placement of
the fingers. On the piano, it comes down to hammers hitting strings.
Developed by Wayne Stahnke, the first Disklaviers were made in the
1980's by Bösendorfer, the renowned Viennese piano manufacturer. When
that company stopped making them, Yamaha took up the baton, hiring Mr.
Stahnke as a consultant. Mr. Stahnke's best-known Disklavier project
was a foretaste of Dr. Walker's efforts: translations of piano rolls
recorded by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The two resulting CD's of "new"
Rachmaninoff performances, both called "A Window in Time" and released
in 1998 and 1999, are still available from Telarc. Some listeners find
these revelatory. Some find them mechanical, even soulless. The
reactions demonstrate a basic difficulty with mechanical reproduction
of music: there is a subjective element involved in determining if it
works. The final criterion for any such reproduction is the rather
imprecise "Turing test" of artificial intelligence: that is, whether
it can make the listener think he or she is hearing a person rather
than a machine.
At the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a
group of leading researchers known as the Machine Learning, Data
Mining and Intelligent Music Processing Group are trying to pinpoint
just what it is that fools the ear. Led by Gerhard Widmer, they are
looking at everything from improving the way computers "hear" music to
isolating the elements of individual performance style, as well as
creating graphs and animations to illustrate different pianists'
interpretations of the same passage of music.
In a 2003 paper, "In Search of the Horowitz Factor," Dr. Widmer and
his team described giving the computer 13 recordings of Mozart piano
sonatas, played into a Bösendorfer Disklavier by the pianist Roland
Batik, to see if they could use the computer to determine rules that
described the pianist's interpretive choices.
They did get some rules, though it turned out that many of them
applied equally well to other performances of other music. But the
machine generated its own performance of a Mozart sonata movement that
it had not heard Mr. Batik play, but based on what it had learned of
his style. With this, it took second prize in the International
Computer Piano Performance Rendering Contest in Tokyo in 2002. With no
"The first question was, can we hear Glenn Gould play again?" Dr.
Walker said. "The next question: Cool, can we hear him play other
stuff?" To this, Dr. Widmer might answer: We're getting there.
But there's still the thorny matter of how to get data from an audio
recording into the computer. It's a question not just of having the
computer play back a CD, but of translating the music into a language
the computer can understand.
A computer, by itself, can't recognize the difference between a note
of music and a cough. It can't pick out a melody from a dense weave of
counterpoint. It can't tap its foot to follow a beat - not, at least,
in classical music, where the tempos are constantly changing. The
first problem Dr. Walker faced was how to get the computer to create a
kind of score from the clusters of sounds in a recording.
"A recording is sound waves that were sampled by a microphone," he
said. "We feed those into the computer and try to discover what the
notes are. The computer model is a three-dimensional thing: middle C
struck in a certain way looks like a 3-D mountain range. We have a
model that looks like math equations, and we try to fit to it: Yeah,
this looks like it's a note."
Dr. Walker - a trained pianist with a degree in software engineering
who sold his company a few years ago, creating the time and financial
flexibility to work on this project - is coming up with his own
answers. But the process is still extremely time-consuming. He is
reluctant to say just how slow it is, but he has been working for more
than three years, and his demo CD includes only a few tracks: the
Cortot, Glenn Gould's performance of the Aria and first variation of
Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, and part of a track by Art Tatum.
Even after he gets a model that works, Dr. Walker has to contend with
the question of reproduction on a Disklavier: can it mimic human
performance down to the last detail? Dr. Werner Goebl, a member of Dr.
Widmer's team in Vienna, addressed this as co-author of a paper called
"Are Computer-Controlled Pianos a Reliable Tool in Music Performance
Research? Recording and Reproduction Precision of a Yamaha Disklavier
Grand Piano." Precisely measuring the Disklavier's ability to
replicate human touch, Dr. Goebl answered his own question: No.
Less high-tech but just as relevant are the variations from one piano
to another. A skilled musician compensates for changes in a room or an
instrument. A CD cannot. Dr. Walker encountered one aspect of the
problem when he took his technology to the Yamaha studios to play his
Cortot performance for Mei-Ting Sun, a young concert pianist and the
winner of the first Piano-e-Competition in 2002 (judged, in part, via
a Disklavier in Japan, which reproduced performances thousands of
miles away for one of the judges).
It had to do with the final chord in the Chopin prelude - or, rather,
with the extra, wrong note.
"Their piano wasn't calibrating as ours was," Dr. Walker said, "and
the note didn't sound. Mei-Ting said: 'I know this recording. This
wasn't accurate, because Cortot misses the last chord.' I played it
again, and he watched the keyboard and saw that the key went down but
didn't sound. He said, 'O.K., you guys got it.' "
Mr. Sun was so convinced that at the North Carolina concert where Dr.
Walker's version of Cortot made his debut, he appeared as the featured
live artist: Cortot played a piece, Glenn Gould played a piece, and
Mr. Sun played the rest of the evening. He had to; Dr. Walker didn't
have enough music to fill a whole recital.
The technology, in short, is still in its infancy. But Dr. Walker is
animated by his vision of the future. Like other scientists -
including Dr. Goebl in Vienna, another serious classical musician - he
envisions a future of interactive recordings. "We've been trained that
a recording is a frozen document," he said. "Why can't it be like a
video game - every time you hear a recorded performance it's
different?" But at the moment, his focus is on making new recordings
in a more conventional manner.
Dr. Goebl, in Vienna, supports Dr. Walker's work and is interested in
it. But he questions whether it's a "real" performance. (Dr. Walker is
well aware of such skepticism; his response is simply that you can't
judge until you've heard it.) "The timing you can probably get quite
right," Dr. Goebl said. "What is really difficult is to get how long
the notes were held and how the pedal was moved and so on. You don't
have that information. You can just guess. The result is something
that sounds like but never truly will be Gould. It's always an
So is he saying that Dr. Walker's track isn't authentic?
"There you have to go into the philosophical domain," Dr. Goebl
replied. "A recording is just an acoustic document of what took
In other words, a recording isn't authentic, either. It is also at a
remove, or two or three, from the original performer, and it is also
affected by the decisions of the engineers who helped create it.
The Gould recording, after all, wasn't recorded in one take. Many
different takes were spliced together to create it. Is it any more
real than a computer replica? Only if you say it is.
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