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Gould 're-performance' is pretty cool listening


Technophiles will no doubt be intrigued (and purists appalled) by the Zenph "re-performance" of Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of Bach's "The Goldberg Variations," an interesting experiment in the world of technology and art.

What is a "re-performance?" The Zenph software analyzes a piano performance, separates the musical attributes (pitch and duration of notes, velocity of key strikes, key releases, and so on), and then encodes those to be re-created and re-played on a high-resolution, computer-controlled piano.

The result is a re-creation of the original performance on an actual piano — supposedly exactly as the original artist played it. Instead of re-mastering old recordings, they can simply re-perform and newly record "old performances" on state-of-the-art recording equipment.

This CD is a musical litmus test that the creators of this technology gave themselves: creating Gould's 1955 performance of the Goldberg Variations, as the original recording was before the advent of stereo sound.

It was recorded twice: once as a stereo surround version and once as the binaural stereo version, billed as the "ultimate headphone experience."

The binaural version was recorded on two microphones inside ear-shaped apparatus (on a dummy head), placed approximately at the distance away from the piano that Glenn Gould's actual two ears would have been. So it's intended to re-create exactly the way it would have sounded to Gould himself as he was playing, and is intended to be heard through headphones.

So ... the verdict? Hang on to your old recording but give the new one a listen. The stereo version simulates placing the listener about midway back in a live recital hall, and makes the original recording (not the performance) sound dull and dead by comparison.

Is the performance "authentic?" Well, it does sound eerily similar to the original performance, but the overall effect is different with the way the new one simulates what it might be like to hear it in concert. And, of course, it's absent Gould's trademark humming.

And the binaural version? For the first few minutes, it was such a different listening experience that it was almost downright weird, but once the ears adjusted, it was preferred over the stereo version.

It's pretty cool listening to the upper register with your right ear and the lower with your left.