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Art Tatum Lives through technology

Friday, June 20, 2008 - 02:10 PM

The idea of hearing an Art Tatum performance live, half a century after Tatum himself died, is certainly intriguing. You listen to those recordings of his from the 40s, and it’s clear that he was one of the greatest virtuosos of the instrument this country has ever produced. But that’s all that’s clear. The sound is not. So now a computer can replay Tatum’s exact performance, every gesture, every delayed entry, every unexpected grace note, but on a Yamaha Disklavier – a genuine grand piano with a small computer affixed to the underside which triggers the usual hammer-and-key mechanism on the strings.

This is not a new idea – Artis Wodehouse, who has studied Gershwin’s music and scores, had a Disklavier shipped into our studio back in the late 90s so that we could hear George Gershwin play his own music from beyond the grave. What IS new is that computers have advanced to the point where actual recordings of live performances can be analyzed and then re-created, live on a real piano, by the Disklavier technology.
Art TatumSo, what to make of all this? On the one hand, to hear a genuine Art Tatum performance, with the piano strings vibrating in the same room as you, is a very appealing prospect. It’s also a little creepy. I mean, the computer analyzes A live performance, not THE live performance. No human performer would, or could, play a piece the exact same way twice. But that’s exactly what the Disklavier will do. Of course, it’s the same problem with the recordings – it’s a document of how one musician played a piece in one studio or concert hall at that time. But bringing “Art Tatum” on the road with the Disklavier? Or Vladimir Horowitz or any other pianist? Would you want to see that live? Would you want the recording?


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Comments [3]

John Caricato

OMG! That sounds awful!

The process seems to be missing many notes during fast passages, the legato is gone, and the dynamics sound arbitrary. What makes music MUSIC is lost and what remains is just sound.

Jun. 22 2008 03:20 PM
David A. Goldfarb

On the radio the Zenph versions of Glenn Gould and Art Tatum did sound a bit sterile and mechanized to me. I don't think you can change the instrument and get an authentic result from this sort of process. There is a feedback loop between the instrument and the performer, and even if you can match the mechanical nuances of the original performance, a different instrument will respond in different ways to the same mechanical input, and a performer would play a different instrument differently.

Jun. 20 2008 03:04 PM

Although this is a tech marvel, I think it's important not to get carried away here. Firstly, an artist will have made all kinds of microlevel choices based on the room, the particular instrument, etc. Re-recording will necessarily change all of these factors.

So, we have to look at this technology as merely another method of recording, with strengths and weaknesses, and with all of the ambiguity that exists in the process of capturing a live musical event.

Nick (NYC)

Jun. 20 2008 02:49 PM

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