What's it like to perform with a ghost?
"There was no pianist breathing or cueing me," cellist Zuill Bailey says. "The good news is that he was very consistent." Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian adds, "It's absolutely true — it takes a little bit of adjusting."
Bailey and Bayrakdarian are talking about their accompanist: the late — very late — Manuel de Falla, who died in 1946. With the help of new recording technology, the two have performed de Falla's Seven Popular Spanish Songs for a new release, The Spanish Masters.
De Falla originally recorded the work in 1928. This new version was created using technology developed by a North Carolina company called Zenph. Its engineers call the results "re-performances."
Here's how it works: Historic recordings from wax cylinders or scratchy 78s are recorded into a computer. The computer then analyzes the pianist's articulation: the timing of notes, how loudly or softly they're played, the attack and release of fingers from the keyboard. The data is then fed into a modern instrument fitted with a special playback mechanism — what amounts to a modern-day player piano. It must have been an eerie sight as Bayrakdarian sang along with the playing of the long-dead master.
"Imagine a very silent room, just like Zuill said. You get the countdown of when the piano will start, but there's a microsecond of 'Whoosh!' ... That is the machinery in the piano that is transmitting the data," Bayrakdarian says. "That was the moment of frisson — 'Ooh, there's the ghost coming in and inhabiting the piano, and here I am going to be singing with him.'"
De Falla is best known these days as a composer, and was a respected pianist in his day — but that doesn't mean the Zenph re-performance of his piece doesn't include a few clams. Every once in a while, there may be a stumble or an awkward note. It's technically possible in the Zenph system to clean them up, but the company's artistic directors strongly discourage this. Zuill Bailey says that's a good thing.
"You know, some of the greatest performances are not the ones that are note perfect. [De Falla's] playing is very human, very mortal; it is very imperfect," Bailey says. "But to hear a composer play something that was inside of him, that he was able to vent out on paper and yet also produce at a musical instrument, and for us to be witness to that, is a huge asset to composers as well as performers.
To Bayrakdarian, the best part about being able to perform with de Falla's "ghost" is the clues it gives to how he himself approached his composition. For example, Bayrakdarian says she had been told all her life to sing these pieces slowly, deliberately, in a formal classical style — but it never felt quite right. Upon learning that de Falla himself preferred a brisk, breezy and folksy interpretation, she says she felt emboldened.
"We are consumed with always trying to figure out, 'What would the composer have wanted?' And the way we try to perform something is to respect the composer's wishes, and to be the conduit for his wishes," Bayrakdarian says. "So, for the first time, this is a recording that actually provides the proof."