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MMD > Archives > November 1998 > 1998.11.26 > 04Prev  Next

Article "Rachmaninoff Duplicated - Like Sheep"
By Terry Smythe

The following news article appeared this morning in the ARTS section of
The National, Canada's new national daily newspaper, distributed across
Canada.  It appears to be a reprint from an undated issue of the
New York Times.

Interesting that the author appears to have been able to actually hear
the second Telarc release, but in the article indicates that Telarc
will not be releasing it until March 1999.  One wonders if it actually
already exists, why they would wait that long instead of capitalizing
on the current highly favorable reviews.


Terry Smythe

 - - -

The National
26 November 1998


CDs  From Player-Piano Rolls

New York Times

Geneticists have their Dolly.  They also have the goods on Thomas
Jefferson: the old miscegenation long suspected, now betrayed by his
own DNA.  Where the progress of science is concerned, art is rarely
far behind, and now comes Sergei Rachmaninoff, dead since 1948,
walking among us again.

Telarc has released A Window in Time, a CD made from piano rolls, and
promises another in March.  On the first, the great man plays his own
music and arrangements ranging from Bizet to The Star-Spangled Banner.
On the second, Rachmaninoff addresses the significant (Chopin,
Schubert, Mendelssohn) and the less significant (Henselt, Rubinstein
and bowdlerized Bach, Beethoven and Gluck).  The music comes from a
process developed by Wayne Stahnke, who got his ideas working on the
Voyager space mission for NASA.

The New York Times' Harold C. Schonberg, who heard Rachmaninoff in the
flesh, says that Telarc's reproductions come eerily close to the
Rachmaninoff he remembers; he also says that the 78-rpm record and the
player piano don't.  I don't know who or what played these performances,
but they constitute masterly pianism.

Is this Rachmaninoff positively identified, in the manner of the
American third president, or Rachmaninoff duplicated, after our famous
Scottish sheep?  Let ontology and science battle this one out.  The
results are extraordinary.  Played on a mechanized and electrified
Boesendorfer piano, the performances have a nuance and sophistication
that no original disk or previous piano roll technology comes close to.
How does it work? Let not the blind lead the potentially sighted.
Suffice it to say that a transformation takes place that moves
discourse from mechanics-speak to electricity-speak.

The traditional player piano (high-end purveyors prefer the term
"reproducing piano") can't avoid spillage.  For no matter how
sophisticated the old Ampico process in registering touch, pedal and
expression, pumping air through perforations on mass-produced sheets of
paper invites small miscalculations of hand and machine, and the
debilitating friction of moving mechanical parts.  Stahnke first
devised his own updated player piano, powered by electric current, not
air pressure.  Assuming that the local power company kept things steady,
commands to the keyboard could be received through circuitry without
hindrance.  Bypassed are the dangers of mis-aligned machinery or the
vagaries of flagging feet pumping pedals furiously at home.

The next obstacle was the purity of source; and when Stahnke could not
find the master rolls used as manufacturing templates, he managed,
through computer hocus-pocus, to recreate them from their imperfect
offspring on the retail market.  Much refined, the perforations pass
before a computer scanning process and the results are stored on hard

One can argue that Stahnke's process is just one further refinement on
the original process, and that too much excitement over it reinforces
the myth of attainable reality: that the gap between the event and our
mechanical memory of it will eventually narrow into nothingness.  Live
and recorded performance are separate experiences and need to be
received as such.  I also believe that too much machinery takes our
minds off music.  Yet what one hears from these CDs seems less a new
stage than a whole new event.

Think of Dolly.  Previous technologies -- early recordings, old piano
rolls and the modern Disklavier -- are a little like building an
elaborate mechanical sheep that at its best moments walks on all fours,
simulates eating grass with reasonable verisimilitude but could never
cause the perspicacious mutton-lover to salivate.  What Stahnke and
Telarc do to Rachmaninoff comes close to cloning.  At least, the
relationship of original to copy is close enough to make us worry.

The performance of Chopin's B flat minor Scherzo on the disk not yet
released is one that few humans or humanoids would disavow.  The
familiar Gluck air from Orfeo, also in the second volume, has an
intimate personal vocabulary that one can't keep from calling human.
Inhumanity pops up elsewhere and in ways that make it hard to decide
whom to blame.  That Mendelssohn's Spinning Song, a modest character
piece, becomes a virtuoso race course, and the last of Schubert's Opus
90 Impromptus a kind of abstract mechanical drawing, may have to do
with pianistic ability out of control.  On the other hand, perhaps the
source is less to blame than the process that cleansed it.

Other items are so scientifically perfect that they make the flesh
crawl.  The absolute symmetry of touch in Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of
the Bumblebee, for one, is deeply suspicious.  Schonberg may tell me
that this is the way Rachmaninoff played, but I feel the presence of a
synthetic process dedicated to righting the weaknesses of fallible man,
a perfect sheep updating the accidents of nature.

These are not releases intended for musical discovery.  Very few of the
items here are of vital artistic consequence; it is how they are done
that is significant.  The confusing mix of virtuosities gives one little
idea where pianist leaves off and machine begins.

Anyone who doubts that hidden somewhere in the collective unconscious
is a unified field theory binding science to the arts should read the
newspapers and then listen to these disks.  For they elicit exactly the
delight and dread we feel toward scientists fiddling with creation.  I'm
not sure whether I am listening to Rachmaninoff, Stahnke or a shadowy
doppelganger: some artificial conglomerate made in the laboratory but
claiming a life of its own.

 [ Like too many other columnists, I feel that this author writes simply
 [ to entertain his audience with opinion and speculation.  It's a shame
 [ that, after hearing the yet-to-be-released CD, he didn't bother to
 [ hear Rachmaninoff's audio recordings, or recordings of Ampico pianos
 [ playing the music rolls.  -- Robbie

(Message sent Thu 26 Nov 1998, 18:12:26 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  Article, Duplicated, Like, Rachmaninoff, Sheep

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