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John Q. Walker's TED Talk: Gould's Goldberg Variations Go LIVE With Computerized Grand Pianos

By Steve Nagel s.nagel@classicalite.com on Sep 29, 2015 09:34 PM EDT

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould would have loved the notion of computerized grand pianos. Notorious for rejecting live performance in pursuit of studio perfection, Gould's Goldberg Variations are a testament to his recording prowess. Yet, according to software entrepreneur John Q. Walker's TED Talk, not all audiophiles accept that studio production has secured complete and total optimization over musical output. Especially with respect to older, scratchier, and poorly mixed recordings, some still regard studio work as a stop-gap measure for the kind of experience only a live performance can give.  Still, despite this seemingly anti-tech attitude, it may in fact be technology that restores live performing capabilities to long-departed performers. John Q. Walker's TED Talk demonstrates how Yamaha's computerized grand pianos can recreate studio recordings by analyzing precise keystroke information. The result is live testament to how a piece was performed on the day it was recorded. The test subject for John Q. Walker's experiment was Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1955.

Cuing the specially-modified grand piano beside him, Walker began the program with the first Goldberg Variation. What the audience observed was the effect of a player piano, clearing showing the keys bouncing up and down on their own accord. The "key" difference, however, lies in the action and the expression painstakingly extracted by the software, from the original recording, through what Walker called "an entirely new science of how we play." Once the data has been collected, the high-tech piano is able to capture and reproduce the life-like dynamics of a live performance that, otherwise, could never be inputted on a piano roll.

The choice to utilize one of Glenn Gould's recordings was based on Gould's own decision to abandon the stage in the mid-60s for feeling like, as Gould put it, "a performing monkey." From then until his death, Gould devoted himself entirely to the full creative control offered to him by the studio. Walker describes how the inspiration of the project was based partially on satisfying the creative ambitions of Gould, who we suspect would've loved nothing better than to directly supply live audiences with his polished studio work.

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TagsTED Talk, John Q. Walker, Glenn Gould, Bach: Goldberg Variations

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