New Technology Recaptures Pianists of the Past Decades of amazing musical performances are hidden behind the limits of audio technology at the time they were recorded. Now, a new technology re-performs and records classics by Glenn Gould, Alfred Cortot and Art Tatum.

New Technology Recaptures Pianists of the Past

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One of the best-known classical albums of all time is Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of "Bach's Goldberg Variations." It's never been out of print, never, and it launched Gould's recording career at the age of 22.

This week, Sony Classical will release a brand-new recording of that 1955 performance. As NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr reports, it's the first re-performance project by a Raleigh, North Carolina, software company called Z-E-N-P-H. That spells Zenph.

JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR: The idea is simple. Old recordings sound old. Decades of amazing musical performances are hidden behind the limits of audio technology at the time they were recorded.

(Soundbite of "Chopin's Prelude")

FREYMANN-WEYR: This is a recording of a Chopin "Prelude" that was made in the 1920s by pianist Alfred Cortot. It was one of the first pieces that Zenph used to demonstrate its software.

(Soundbite of a "Chopin's Prelude")

FREYMANN-WEYR: When he was a college student, John Q. Walker, the president and founder of Zenph, studied piano with a teacher who had been a student of Cortot's.

Mr. JOHN Q. WALKER (President and Founder, Zenph Studios): And I thought, gosh, you know, you've had the experience of hearing all these people play live and I never will. You know, there's recordings, but that's not the same with sitting in the room as they play.

FREYMANN-WEYR: The Zenph re-performance process isn't a remastering — that is, trying to fix an existing recording with EQ or noise reduction. Instead, it's a new recording of a performance that scientifically matches the earlier one. They use a Yamaha Disklavier Pro, an actual acoustic piano that can, with a computer's help, play back with microscopically accurate timing and sensitivity.

The other before-and-after demo that they used to generate interest in the project was the opening of Glenn Gould's 1955 "Goldberg Variations." Gould was a legendary figure in the world of classical music whose later interpretations of Bach were often accompanied by his humming or singing. His original recording of the "Goldbergs" doesn't have too much of that, but it is in mono and does have a lot of hiss and extraneous noise.

(Soundbite of "Goldberg Variations")

FREYMANN-WEYR: The Zenph version was able to be recorded in stereo surround directly to digital.

(Soundbite of "Goldberg Variations")

FREYMANN-WEYR: Jeffrey McIntyre(ph) is in charge of business development for Zenph. He says using the Gould demo as a calling card instantly got across to potential investors what they were doing and showed they had passed the first hurdle of actually sounding like Gould.

Mr. JEFFREY MCINTYRE (Business Development, Zenph Studios): Because it's so well known and so many people recognize the genius of this record that everyone's going to have an opinion about it. And so if we didn't do it right, we'd know it.

FREYMANN-WEYR: The new album is being released by Sony Classical, which owned masters for the original 1955 recording.

Mr. WALKER: We had a sales call at Sony and met with the president of Sony Music. And he took our demo CD, listened to it for three minutes, and said that's amazing, let's do albums.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Zenph President Walker says the Glenn Gould estate also was enthusiastic. Gould himself stopped giving live concert performances early in his career, in part so he could edit together perfect takes in the recording studio, back in the days of tape and splicing.

This new process Zenph has of capturing a performance is incredibly complex, because in order to playback a piece of music, they need to make the jump from audio that we hear to performance data, sort of like the way scanners with optical character recognition can turn a picture of a document into a word-processing file you can edit. Walker says, first, they save the original recording to the computer as a sound file then the software can begin its analysis.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WALKER: And what we're trying to do is to discover how every note was played in that original performance. Well, it turns out there's about a dozen things you have to discover for every single note in the whole performance.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Exactly when each note was hit, how loudly, with what kind of attack, when and how it was released. Add to that the complexity of what a note does in the air after it's played, interacting with the room's acoustics and other notes around it. Then there are the philosophical and ethical questions. Do you correct mistakes?

Anatoly Larkin is a performance analyst with Zenph.

Mr. ANATOLY LARKIN (Performance Analyst, Zenph Studios): We are able to actually clean out some of the wrong notes that Gould played, but we don't do that. Because our job is to, first of all, present the accurate artistic statement.

FREYMANN-WEYR: And they are obsessive about that, even when it comes to including a mistake to be faithful to the original. There's a note Gould hit by accident toward the very beginning of "Variation 27."

Mikhail Cryshtol(ph) is director of music research and production for Zenph.

Mr. MIKHAIL CRYSHTOL (Director of Music Research and Production, Zenph Studios): What we decided to do to generate (unintelligible) where the note would be softer, louder, and to match that level which would be just like in the original.

(Soundbite of music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: Not loud enough?

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: They had a dozen or more options before finally deciding on the one that made it to the recording.

(Soundbite of music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: Colin Eatock is a Canadian music critic who was present when the Zenph team offered a concert performance of the complete "Goldbergs" in Toronto last September. He says for all its cutting-edge technology, the Zenph re-performances are pointing classical music yet again into the past.

Mr. COLIN EATOCK (Music Critic): I'm not sure that this is what a healthy musical culture does. I mean, the past should be respected and remembered, but a culture that becomes so completely fixated on the past and reproducing the past is, I think, in trouble.

FREYMANN-WEYR: But Zenph's Jeffrey McIntyre sees what they're doing as bringing value to the vaults of troubled record companies by making older performances more accessible to audiences who are resistant to the sound of scratchy recordings. McIntyre says one major advantage of this technology is that it can adapt as new formats come and go because it plays back on an actual acoustic piano.

Mr. MCINTYRE: And once you can do that, that really is the holy grail of recording because you'll never be obsolete.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Zenph will be turning to jazz next with a recording of re-performances of Art Tatum, including a live concert performance they hope to recreate with no one at the piano at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can find out more about Zenph's re-performances and hear full before-and-after examples at

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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