Bionic Overload

Photo: Enamul Hoque/Getty Images (computer chip); Dave King/Getty Images (piano)

A few weeks ago, the violinist Joshua Bell gave a nationally televised concert in which he performed with a revolving roster of musical “friends,” including Sergei Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943. The means for this Styx-defying trick was provided by Zenph Studios, a company that has invented a process for converting scratchy old recordings into pristine data. A computer uses that stream of numbers to “play” a Steinway, moving keys exactly as the deceased pianist did, down to every feathery nuance. In a highbrow form of karaoke, Bell took the role of Fritz Kreisler, whose exquisite fiddling had been omitted from a 1928 recording of Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 3.

In a related development, on February 5, the Fireworks Ensemble will perform a live version of Lou Reed’s notorious 1975 album Metal Machine Music, at Miller Theatre. Listening to Reed’s original double LP is a test of endurance. In his garment-district loft, he leaned various electric guitars against their amps so that they howled at each other in crescendoing feedback loops, and welded the tracks into deafening industrial polyphony. The result was one of the most loathed records ever to hit the market. Nevertheless, the intrepid composer Ulrich Krieger decided to arrange it for traditional instruments, an undertaking that smacks of flagellant zeal.

Zenph and Krieger may be heading in opposite directions—one automates performances, while the other puts mechanical art into human hands—but they are converging on the same goal: transforming a recording into a performance. Imagination rolls into technology and then back into live experience. Instrumentalists have always treated their specialized contraptions as expressive extensions of themselves, and technological improvements like valved horns, steel strings, and GarageBand all aim to enhance creativity. But Zenph’s musician-free live performance and Krieger’s warm-blooded robotic clangor aspire to a fresh and perfect synthesis of spirit and machine.

It’s a venerable dream. The German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann captured the uncanny closeness of mechanics and musicality in his bewitching 1816 short story The Sandman, which features a lovely virtuoso singer named Olimpia, who happens to be an automaton. (She reappears as the windup diva Olympia in Offenbach’s opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann, but without her hallucinogenic allure.) A century later, the American composer Conlon Nancarrow yearned for a performer who could tackle his gnarled cross-rhythms without failure or complaint. He settled instead on the player piano, which could execute complex passages at speeds beyond the ken of human tendons, and which he could command by hand-punching the paper rolls that drove the instrument.

The fantasy of the bionic artist comes with built-in ironies. A soprano who sings Olympia must imitate a machine imitating a soprano—and is judged by the charm with which she sounds impersonal. And while Nancarrow believed he was writing pieces that negated the possibility of performance, a few fearless devotees have transcribed them for chamber ensemble. Playing Nancarrow requires an ability to juggle asynchronous beats or keep multiple tempos running simultaneously, and the payoff is music of sublime lunacy, imbued with a vitality that the composer had abandoned.

The desire to fuse creative machines and human expressivity has produced some loopy paradoxes, including Krieger’s rewrite of Reed, which I experienced via a DVD recorded at a Berlin concert in 2002: a digital recording of a live performance of a transcription of an analog recording of a mechanized musical event. Reed claims to have fathered industrial rock with Metal Machine Music, but by the mid-seventies, there were ample precedents for controlled cacophony. George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique, to name just one, called for sixteen player pianos plus percussion, electric bells, a siren, a pair of ordinary pianos, and three airplane propellers. (It is usually performed in a later, more pragmatic arrangement.) Antheil’s work is more gleefully original—and more fun to listen to—but Reed did contribute one Frankensteinian innovation: He sat back and let the amps and guitars produce their own noise. His electric gear was emancipated from its servitude, glorying loudly in its quality of machine-ness.

Call me human-ist, but I prefer a composer in control. One of the highlights of the last decade was the Carnegie Hall performance of Pierre Boulez’s Répons, in which a small corps of instrumentalists colludes with a splendid array of electronics to produce a coruscating cloud of sound. Their live instruments control computers, which process the musicians’ native tones and unleash a new acoustic counterpoint. It’s the opposite of Zenph’s preservationist approach, which nurtures the past with fanatical tenderness.

Zenph began by creating a “re-performance” version of Glenn Gould’s classic 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which Sony Masterworks then issued on CD. The difference between the original and its reincarnation is one of sound quality, not content, and while that might beguile audio fetishists, it strikes me as tacky, the musical equivalent of colorizing Casablanca. Instead, the technology’s value lies in forging complex collaborations between the past and the present. I would love to be there if Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic should one day accompany the ghost of the great pianist Alfred Cortot, reenacting a performance of the Schumann Concerto from the thirties. Or imagine what composers might wreak with other switch-controlled instruments: pieces for nine-hand cello, or wild historical mash-ups of Thelonious Monk playing hip to absent hip with Prokofiev. And should such a Zenph-inspired, Nancarrow-like masterpiece arise, a work for piano without pianist, no doubt some intrepid Kriegeresque masochist will reassert human primacy by transcribing it for an ensemble of mortals. And the cycle will begin again.

Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music.
Miller Theatre at Columbia University.
February 5. 8 p.m.

Bionic Overload