Play it again, Art

Jazz pianist Art Tatum will return to the Shrine Auditorium on Sunday to perform the nine songs he recorded there in 1949, seven years before he died.

It won’t be Tatum in the flesh, of course. But it’s not him on Memorex either. Instead, a virtual Tatum will be on stage inside a computer the size of a dictionary, sending electronic instructions that will move the keys and pedals of a robotic, 9-foot-long Yamaha concert grand piano. Think of it as a player piano for the digital era, powered by software instead of paper rolls.

The point is to re-create one of Tatum’s long-playing masterworks, “Piano Starts Here,” which features the Shrine recordings and four tracks from his first studio sessions in 1933. Sony BMG (the record company that owns the copyrights) could have modified the original tapes digitally to remove the maddening hiss and simulate stereo sound. But it turned to Zenph Studios, the North Carolina start-up, for an exponentially more difficult solution. Zenph’s software engineers analyzed the recording to determine not just the notes Tatum played -- no mean feat, given that his hands flew across the keys like a flock of birds spooked out of a tree -- but also how he played them. There are lots of different ways to strike a piano key: You can lean into it, jab it, tap it, caress it like a piece of fabric or pound it like a nail. Taking advantage of the Yamaha’s extensively programmable robotics, Zenph’s algorithms try to replicate what, exactly, Tatum’s fingers did, and how his feet worked the pedals. The result, if all goes right, will be a new CD that replicates the original performance, in stereo and higher fidelity.


Zenph, which also revived pianist Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, has ambitions that stretch beyond re-performed piano works. The company’s co-founder, John Q. Walker, says the technology will eventually be extended to other instruments -- and voices. And once enough data are gathered about a performer, living or dead, that person’s distinctive playing or singing style could be applied to material he or she never recorded. Imagine adding Eddie van Halen’s guitar pyrotechnics to your band’s sound, without needing him in the studio. Or paying him.

This is heady stuff, and frankly a little creepy. It also suggests a battle to come over who, if anyone, owns a playing style. Lawmakers didn’t anticipate technologies such as Zenph’s when they wrote the statutes governing copyrights and other intellectual property, so it’s not clear how the courts might rule. Nor do we know how these technologies will develop and be used. The only sure thing is that because of Zenph, we have a lot more useful knowledge about how Art Tatum played the piano -- knowledge that could conceivably lead to a panoply of new creative works. As a result, Tatum’s signature cascades of sound will reverberate out of the Shrine Auditorium long after his computerized self has left the building.