Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 3, 2007

Good as Gould?

A few months ago, at Manhattan’s Yamaha studios, a large black piano stood onstage—minus any pianist—playing what was billed as a “re-performance” of Glenn Gould’s 1955 mono recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The feat was accomplished with a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file containing vastly detailed information about Gould’s old record, including such matters as volume and tempo, fed through a Disklavier Pro piano, one of the few concert grands that can play such files.

But why bother? This bestselling record—Gould would rerecord the “Goldbergs” in stereo in 1981—has remained in print ever since it was first published by Sony Classical (now Columbia) in 1956. Why this staged display for a pianist who famously loathed concert performance, retiring at 31 from live recitals to devote himself entirely to recording, films, and radio? The event’s real protagonist, of course, was Zenph Studios, a North Carolina software company, which developed this technology.

Listening to the Zenph re-performance, it is immediately clear that no musician’s fingers are actually hitting keys. The notes may be faithfully replicated in terms of the duration of notes and their intensity, but the physical presence of a pianist is sadly missing. What is a piano without a pianist, except an odd-looking piece of furniture? When Franz Liszt began the tradition of piano recitals in the 19th century, one audience member was heard to ask quizzically, “A piano recital? How can a piano recite?” The question today—thanks to Zenph—becomes “Should a piano recite?”

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A few months ago, at Manhattan’s Yamaha studios, a large black piano stood onstage—minus any pianist—playing what was billed as a “re-performance” of Glenn Gould’s 1955 mono recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The feat was accomplished with a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file containing vastly detailed information about Gould’s old record, including such matters as volume and tempo, fed through a Disklavier Pro piano, one of the few concert grands that can play such files.

But why bother? This bestselling record—Gould would rerecord the “Goldbergs” in stereo in 1981—has remained in print ever since it was first published by Sony Classical (now Columbia) in 1956. Why this staged display for a pianist who famously loathed concert performance, retiring at 31 from live recitals to devote himself entirely to recording, films, and radio? The event’s real protagonist, of course, was Zenph Studios, a North Carolina software company, which developed this technology.

Listening to the Zenph re-performance, it is immediately clear that no musician’s fingers are actually hitting keys. The notes may be faithfully replicated in terms of the duration of notes and their intensity, but the physical presence of a pianist is sadly missing. What is a piano without a pianist, except an odd-looking piece of furniture? When Franz Liszt began the tradition of piano recitals in the 19th century, one audience member was heard to ask quizzically, “A piano recital? How can a piano recite?” The question today—thanks to Zenph—becomes “Should a piano recite?”

Sony has signed up Zenph to produce a series of eighteen CD’s, half classical and half jazz. The jazz wizard Art Tatum’s Piano Starts Here, a compilation of performances from 1933 and 1949, is next in line to be Zenph’d, followed by recordings by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943). Both of these will doubtless offer noisier originals to be cleaned than Gould’s 1955 record, whatever the loss in direct communication of personality may turn out to be.

All marketing surveys show that CD buyers are generally drawn to recent performances with high sound quality, not historically important material. And the Zenph release is clearly aimed at CD buyers who still find the sound quality of Gould’s previous recordings to be too old-fashioned, even when cleaned up by traditional engineering methods for CD. For these demanding purchasers, the best alternative may simply be to choose be a more recent Goldberg Variations: Murray Perahia (Sony; 2000), András Schiff (ECM; 2001), and Pierre Hantaï (on harpsichord, Mirare; 2003), all master musicians, have all produced them. Glenn Gould’s uniqueness apart, he was not the only fine performer to record the Variations, and—although rabid Gouldians may find it blasphemy to even hint as much—his may not have been the best recordings. Posterity will decide.

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After the Surge

What comes after the troop surge? Even though it isn’t complete yet, it makes sense to think about this issue now. The best proposal I’ve seen so far comes from Bing West and Owen West—a father-and-son pair of Marines and national security analysts with vast experience in Iraq. They propose maintaining about 80,000 troops for a decade or so, with 20,000 of them working as advisers to the Iraqi security forces, 25,000 in a combat role, and another 35,000 providing logistics. The only problem is how to get from here to there—how to send home half of the American troops without causing a complete collapse of the Iraqi government and its security forces. That’s where the surge comes in: the plan to downsize only works if the current surge manages to restore a semblance of order in Baghdad and its environs.

The question now is whether General Petraeus and his troops will have the time and support needed to make progress on the ground. They are, of course, being undermined on a daily basis by Congressional leaders who proclaim that we’ve already lost the war. But the Bush administration isn’t helping the cause, either. Take, for example, the leak-based story that appeared on the front page of the New York Times this Saturday: “White House Is Said to Debate ’08 Cut in Iraq Combat Forces by 50 Percent.”

This is one of those typical, maddening, inside-the-Beltway articles that doesn’t report on an actual decision, but deals instead with the administration’s “internal debate” about whether to reduce troop numbers sharply next year. The leakers appear to be floating a trial balloon: the article gives no reason to think that President Bush will actually sign off on what some senior officials are said to be considering.

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What comes after the troop surge? Even though it isn’t complete yet, it makes sense to think about this issue now. The best proposal I’ve seen so far comes from Bing West and Owen West—a father-and-son pair of Marines and national security analysts with vast experience in Iraq. They propose maintaining about 80,000 troops for a decade or so, with 20,000 of them working as advisers to the Iraqi security forces, 25,000 in a combat role, and another 35,000 providing logistics. The only problem is how to get from here to there—how to send home half of the American troops without causing a complete collapse of the Iraqi government and its security forces. That’s where the surge comes in: the plan to downsize only works if the current surge manages to restore a semblance of order in Baghdad and its environs.

The question now is whether General Petraeus and his troops will have the time and support needed to make progress on the ground. They are, of course, being undermined on a daily basis by Congressional leaders who proclaim that we’ve already lost the war. But the Bush administration isn’t helping the cause, either. Take, for example, the leak-based story that appeared on the front page of the New York Times this Saturday: “White House Is Said to Debate ’08 Cut in Iraq Combat Forces by 50 Percent.”

This is one of those typical, maddening, inside-the-Beltway articles that doesn’t report on an actual decision, but deals instead with the administration’s “internal debate” about whether to reduce troop numbers sharply next year. The leakers appear to be floating a trial balloon: the article gives no reason to think that President Bush will actually sign off on what some senior officials are said to be considering.

As Daily Mail blogger Don Surber notes, this is hardly the first time that the New York Times (or other major newspapers) have run such stories. In fact, such accounts began appearing in 2003, reflecting the desire of many senior generals and administration officials—including former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and former Centcom chief General John Abizaid—to reduce U.S. forces as rapidly as possible. (In the event, deteriorating security conditions did not make possible most of the planned reductions.)

But leaking word that such cuts are under consideration undermines the attempts by American troops to control the situation. It sends a message of wavering resolve, suggesting to our enemies that they can wait us out. (That problem is admittedly exacerbated by the Times’ imprecise reporting. In a subsequent correction, the Newspaper of Record clarified that the administration is debating only pulling out half of our combat brigades, or about one-third of the total troop numbers—not one-half of all troops.) The Bush government accuses Democrats of undermining our position in Iraq, and they are. But it is guilty of the same sin. Or at least those officials who leak such reports are.

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