The Zenph Innovations re-performances of classic piano performances by the likes of Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson and Sergei Rachmaninoff are very compelling. Who wouldn’t want a fresh pristine, surround recording of one of their performances from yesteryear? But among the family of instruments, pianos hold a somewhat special and unique place. In general, pianists play the instrument that is available at the venue or the studio. They don’t travel with their own instrument. I know that large piano makers sponsor many artists. I ran into this when Monty Alexander played on our Ernest Ranglin project. As a Yamaha endorsed artist, they were very happy to make available a C7 piano as long as I paid the $600 to the piano movers.
But even in that circumstance, Monty played the instrument that was made available. He doesn’t travel with a particular instrument. I honestly don’t know if anyone does. But most musicians own, maintain and travel with their instruments. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a gold flute, a ’57 gold top Gibson Les Paul or a Stradivarius violin…virtually all musicians have their own instrument. And they more they progress up the ladder of skill and virtuosity…and fame, the more personal the tone they create.
I spoke with guitarists Laurence Juber and Carl Verheyen about this recently. LJ has moved away from association with GHX strings to Martin Monels. They produce a sound that complements his style of music and playing. I remember talking to Carl a while back about his signature sound. He told me that he spent “two weeks” evaluating electric guitar cables before he decided on a brand that “just sounded right”.
My own son, who is a guitarist now, started his music training studying the cello. When he got good enough, my wife and I went to Robert Cauer’s shop to search for a cello and bow to purchase. Christopher was about 9 or 10 at the time. He sat down with the cello that we selected and went about evaluating bows. Robert set up about 10 to choose from and Christopher played a selection with each of them. After about 20 minutes he came out with the winner in his hand. Sure enough it was the most expensive one of the bunch. Musicians just know.
But pianos are different. The sound of a Model D 9-foot Steinway isn’t the same as a Baldwin or Yamaha or Fazioli. And even the same model from the same company won’t sound the same! Every instrument has a personality, a particular touch and responsiveness. The Model D Steinway at the Colburn School where AIX records is just about as good as I’ve ever heard. We tried the $120,000 Fazioli but it just wasn’t right. Check out the sound of Bryan Pezzone’s playing on the AIX Records we produced with him…amazing!
So when it comes to the validity of a re-performance of a Glenn Gould recording from 1955, we don’t associate the particular tone of the instrument to Glenn Gould. The new Zenph recordings have to be made on a current instrument with the “computer controlled player piano” technology built in. They used a Yamaha Disclavier Pro during the recording session. Not my favorite sounding instrument to record and who knows whether it was even in existence when Glenn Gould was alive. I don’t imagine that he would use one.
My point is that I will accept that a re-performance can bring back an instance of a classic recording. All of the notes are played at the right time, the dynamics are virtually perfect but the sound of the instrument becomes generic rather than personal. I doubt very much whether this approach will work with other instruments.
As much as I would love to capture a re-performance of the Sgt. Pepper record (the original was done on analog tape using only 4-tracks!), there is no way I can imagine a computer controlled mechanism playing a Hofner bass, a Gibson 335 or a set of Ludwig drums like the Beatles did. There is a lot of humanity that is transferred from your fingers or hands to the guitar strings and drumheads. That’s the magic of music.