The Dallas Wind Symphony will present an all-Gershwin concert tomorrow for Valentine’s Day. The composer can’t be there. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, George Gershwin will certainly play — thanks to some advanced digital help.
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[Sounds of orchestra tuning up continue under.]
The Dallas Wind Symphony is rehearsing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in a way no one has ever rehearsed it. Or ever played it.
Conductor Jeff Hellmer: “All right. Everybody ready?”
[Rhapsody starts and continues under].
The Wind Symphony is trying to recreate the performance of Rhapsody that took place on June 10, 1924 when it was first recorded. Paul Whiteman conducted, and George Gershwin was at the piano – just as they were when Rhapsody made its famous debut earlier that year in Whiteman’s “Experiment in Modern Music” concert in New York. To fit on both sides of the 12-inch record, Gershwin’s first, ambitious orchestral work was shortened from 15 minutes to nine and half. Nonetheless, the 1924 recording is as close as we can get to that first Rhapsody, and the Wind Symphony has been configured just like Whiteman’s original, 28-instrument band, right down to a banjo.
Yet there’s no pianist.
That’s because George Gershwin’s part will be played by a Yamaha Disklavier PRO – a kind of super-computer player piano mechanism inside a classic, nine-foot concert grand. It’s essentially a “playback” instrument; what’s truly special here is what will guide the Disklavier: the Zenph Sound Innovations software that meticulously replicates a musician’s performance as computer data.
Jeff Hellmer, director of jazz studies at UT-Austin, will conduct the Valentine’s Day concert.
Hellmer: “The people at Zenph have painstakingly studied Gershwin’s piano performance and have attempted to codify every aspect of the 10,000 notes that Gershwin played. And then they have the piano recreate each of these notes as closely as possible – and in fact, eerily closely.”
A recorded performance is digitally broken down along a complex set of factors including not just pitch and volume but also a pianist’s entire ‘attack’ — his use of pedal, tempo, etc. In effect, Zenph ‘reverse engineers’ the performance, taking into account the player’s style, the particular piano he used, the recording environment — all the factors that led this performer to create this set of sounds at that moment. In 2006, the company released its first CD of such a recreated performance: Glenn Gould’s landmark 1955 album of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It has since released CDs of performances by such pianists as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. The original source recordings are frequently in mono, and some, as with the 1924 Rhapsody, were recorded before the advent of electric microphones. At the time, all the musicians would have crowded around and played into a gramophone horn with the sound waves being etched into a master. Such an analog method was not kind to high or low frequencies.
These CDs have been received with great excitement in audiophile and music circles. The concerts – Zenph calls them “world premiere re-performances” – have been described as “ghostly” and “supernatural,” even “science fiction.” They allow people to hear these giants perform –“live” — in optimum audio conditions.
But as fascinating as all this is, it’s not the company’s ultimate goal. Zenph is not really in the recording and concert-touring business. It’s in the digital musical interface business, creating rehearsal tools and musical tutors for the computer. John Q. Walker is the founder and chairman of Zenph.
Walker: “So, interestingly for us, it’s not about the recording. It’s about the data.”
The performances and the subsequent recordings, he says, are really just beta tests proving they got the performance data right. Having created these highly nuanced maps of great musicians at work, Zenph is looking forward to ways to put them to use. What can we learn from them? Precisely how did this master play? And can that be broken down in such a way that it can be taught?
[music clip starts under]
This is from the iconic 1959 recording by Leonard Bernstein. It’s the more richly orchestrated arrangement of Rhapsody by composer Ferde Grofe in 1945 that most of us know.
But this is how George Gerswhin played it in 1924.
Disregarding the tinny, scratchy sound quality, there are a number of striking audio features. The first is that there’s no percussion, none of the booming kettledrums in the Bernstein version that give the passage a swaggering, military air. The early gramophone technology actually could record some kinds of percussion, but quite often, they weren’t used — as with the Rhapsody. So the Dallas Wind Symphony has had to work out how to handle the percussion.
But even more striking is how fast Gershwin plays. This is not the lush or dreamy Rhapsody we often hear. Gershwin is brash, almost frenetic. He’s 25 years old, the world is coming to hear him play something more than one of his pop tunes — and he’s showing off.
Walker: “We have these expectations from pianists interpreting the score these many years. And George just goes for it [laughs].”
Hellmer: “You have to remember that Gershwin was what they called a ‘plugger’ back on Tin Pan Alley – where he would play popular tunes in the window of a publishing house to attract sheet-music buyers. And the way that he played Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 seems very similar to how he might have plugged a song.”
Right now, that’s a headache for the Dallas musicians. The Whiteman band had played Rhapsody half-a-dozen times before they recorded it, so they knew what to expect — showing off like he did, Gershwin didn’t keep tempo. He sped up and slowed down all over the place. The Wind Symphony is trying to shift with Gershwin on the fly; it’s a first rehearsal for them and it’s stop-and-go. Hellmer conducts from a Zenph-designed computer display of the score, but he’s also listening to an audio ‘click track’ in an earphone, a track that registers Gershwin’s accelerations and hairpin turns.
But capturing and accompanying that brashness and energy — that’s the spirit of the brilliant, young pianist the Dallas Wind Symphony hopes to conjure onstage Tuesday night.