By Penny Johnson, Contributing Author
A short while ago, I wrote an article about the tremendous advancements being made in the field of music technology by the North Carolina-based company, Zenph Sound Innovations. Up to that point however, my exposure to the Zenph historic re-performance® recordings of Glenn Gould, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Art Tatum, came by way of the compact discs which I located at the Toronto Public Library.
I had of course seen plenty of online video footage (this clip from Michael Lawrence’s film, Bach & Friends being a fine example) in which a Yamaha Disklavier Pro™ concert grand piano had been programmed to play back the performances of musical legends, nuance for nuance, and with a level of clarity and aural freshness never before achieved. (Joshua Bell’s live performance at Steinway Hall for Sony Masterworks, with the Zenph re-performance® of Rachmaninoff, featuring the second movement of the third violin sonata by Edvard Grieg, is another personal favourite – click here to view).
While the experience of at-home listening was a treat in itself, given the fact that the original recordings were produced in monaural format, Gould’s 1955 Goldberg recording having been released just a few years prior to the use of stereo sound, the biggest thrill for me came at a reception following the announcement of The Ninth Glenn Gould Prize to Leonard Cohen.
Present at the reception was Zenph founder, Dr. John Q. Walker, who appeared every bit as enthusiastic about his work as I had observed both in his TED address (click here to view) and in the profile that IEEE Spectrum Magazine published in their Dream Jobs 2011 Special Report by David Schneider (click here to read).
Following a brief introduction, Walker began video footage of Oscar Peterson playing at the Eastman School of Music in the 1970s, along with the Zenph re-performance® of that same occasion played on a Yamaha Disklavier Pro™ piano. It truly felt as though all of us in the room were witnessing a live performance of the now deceased Canadian jazz pianist and laureate of The Third Glenn Gould Prize. Incidentally, during his life, Peterson was a great supporter of Walker and his team at Zenph. The demonstration concluded with a Zenph re-performance® of select variations from Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations.
As I looked around the room, examining the faces of everyone as they witnessed this unparalleled musical experience bridging past with present, I was struck by a feeling of repose permeating the entire room, and, unlike as is so often the case with live performances, not a single cough, rustle or twitch could be heard. The room was completely silent for the duration of the performance.
While there were a few people I spoke with afterwards, about the effect of the re-performance® who said that they felt uncomfortable, and would prefer to see a real person seated at the instrument, I had to disagree. I can certainly appreciate how seeing an empty piano bench and a solitary piano producing one of the great interpretations of all time could be a little bit disorienting. For me however, the lack of a body at the instrument only served to enhance the overall impact of the expressivity, for it made the occasion purely about the music. To quote Walker, “I think the true test of this is goose bumps.” You can bet your bum-less piano bench that I had goose bumps when I heard the Zenph re-performance® of Gould.
In the case of artists from days gone by, Zenph re-performances® serve as lifelines to those artists who shaped our world, long before many of us were even born. Violinist, Joshua Bell, who – as has already been mentioned – performed the second movement of the third violin sonata of Grieg, alongside a Zenph re-performance® of pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff, described the experience by saying: “When I first played it, it was really eerie because it feels like Rachmaninoff is in the room. You see the keys going down, you feel the nuance, and if you squint you feel like he’s actually there.”
Those intrigued by Zenph will wish to stay tuned for the upcoming release of an impressive list of re-performances® including Oscar Peterson, George Gershwin, Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, Manuel de Falla, Fats Waller and Scott Joplin. Zenph will also be issuing its re-performance® of Gould’s recording of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Sinfonias, made for Columbia Records in 1964.