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Ghosts in the machine
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Author: Jeremy Eichler
In digital ‘re-performances,’ what do we hear?

“My next guest, I’m sorry to say, is dead.’’

Violinist Joshua Bell was addressing an audience gathered at New York’s Lincoln Center last year, and he wasn’t joking. Bell went on to perform a movement of a Grieg violin sonata alongside a Steinway grand that appeared to be playing itself, keys and pedals in motion, lofting up a refined, aristocratic pianism of a bygone era. It was in fact the touch of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943.

The performance, broadcast nationally on “Live From Lincoln Center,’’ was a banner moment for Zenph, a North Carolina-based company that has pioneered a wizardly technology of “re-performances.’’ Zenph analyzes all the attributes of old piano recordings - from the finest nuances of tempo to the precise speed of key strikes - and processes them digitally, enabling them to re-create an older performance on a modern computer-guided piano. The music has been separated from the dated recording technologies, as Zenph puts it. Rachmaninoff need no longer sound as if he were playing through the telephone from mother Russia. The company says its re-performances allow a listener to feel “as if he or she were there when the original recording was made.’’

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