Ghost Music

By Richard Menta 4/21/05

Technology that brings back the spirit of the dead - literally the spirit, the feel, the meter, and the emotion. This is what will happen in North Carolina next month when a specialized grand piano will give a note-for-note replication of old recordings by long dead artists.

But this piano is not just playing the notes, it is designed to capture the essence of the artist himself. In this case the essence of Glenn Gould from his recordings in 1962 and Alfred Cortot in 1928 in a faithful transcription of timing and pedal pressure as the artists played them originally.

Richard Menta

As New Scientist reports in its next issue, "The piano will replicate every note struck, down to the velocity of the hammer and position of the key when it was played," The piano is a Yamaha Disklavier Pro that utilizes a high resolution MIDI.

The point of this goes beyond sheer exercise. Anyone who collects rare recordings will tell you that some of their most treasured recordings exist on only a few surviving 78s or other pre-CD medium that are in bad shape. Time and use have rendered the music on these rare recordings scratchy and of overall poor sonic quality.

There are a myriad of techniques used to clean these recordings so they can be re-released, but there are limitations as audible distortions remain present. A solution from North Carolina's Zenph Studios calls for another strategy.

Zenph has created a technique utilizing MIDI to reproduce the soul, more or less, of the original musician. A new identical recording can then be created to replace the damaged one with theoretically no deviation from the original.

MIDI transcription has been around for awhile now, but there were limitations that gave the reproduction a hollow feel. Zenph claims that it has solved the technical problems that prevent polyphonic notes - notes that are played simultaneously - from being accurately rendered.

There are still other limitations. Right now the piano is the only instrument that is adapted to the new technique. Other instruments, including the human voice, offer additional challenges.

This is why right now the performances are limited to those of a single instrument. In a few years maybe they will be able to replicate a whole orchestra? As for vocalists, good luck trying to replicate Caruso or Aretha.


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