Zenph’s John Q. Walker has had the idea for his Re-Performance series of recordings since studying piano as a child with famed pianist and educator (and one-time Keyboard columnist) Ruth Slenczynska, in Edwardsville, Illinois.
Jazz pianist Gordon Goodwin hosts a live concert recording of Zenph’s Re-Performance of Art Tatum. That mannequin-like head is a binaural mic that “hears” like a human pair of ears.
“Ruth lived on our block,” Walker tells me from Zenph’s headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina. “She was famous for, among other things, being one of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s two piano students. Sometimes during my lessons with her, she’d say, ‘Now John, here’s how Mr. Rachmaninoff would play this.’ And I thought, ‘You know, I’d like to hear him do it!’ And that’s where the germ of this all started — asking what it would take to hear Rachmaninoff play live again.”
What it would take, it turned out, was a whole lot of modern technology. A Zenph Re-Performance relies heavily on recent technological advancements to convert famed audio recordings back into living, breathing, live performances.
“By the time I got involved in starting up Zenph,” Walker says, “the hardware had finally gotten good enough to replicate the nuances of performance. I’m a software guy, so here was a chance to pair it with hardware that could actually replicate the micro-timings and micro-touches — the levels of pianissimo and repeated notes that a professional pianist deals in. It’s highresolution technology that makes it all possible — the same technology licensed by Yamaha to build their Disklavier Pro self-playing piano.”
Zenph’s process begins by painstakingly analyzing original recordings down to their bare essentials. “Think about every note in a recording like a row in a spreadsheet,” Walker explains. “On the Rachmaninoff album there were around 30,000 notes. So there are 30,000 rows on the spreadsheet, plus pedaling information. Every row in that spreadsheet tells how to play a note.
It says what the note is, when it needs to start, how it should be attacked, how long it should be held, and so on. We need all this information about every note.” That information then drives a mechanism which plays a grand piano in real time. The result gives the best of both worlds: all the original artist’s dynamics and nuances, recorded again under ideal studio conditions with today’s best mics and high-resolution A-to-D converters.
“We’re a software company, so we’re piano-agnostic,” Walker continues. “We’ll record on whatever piano is appropriate for the original artist. We did a Glenn Gould album, and he died a Yamaha Artist. We just did Rachmaninoff on a 1909 Steinway D concert grand. It’s one we think Rachmaninoff may have actually played!”
Zenph’s groundbreaking work has produced acclaimed albums of recreated performances by Glenn Gould, Art Tatum, and Rachmaninoff. They’re currently working on a new recording of late jazz legend Oscar Peterson’s music as well. “Oscar heard our Tatum album in 2007, six months before he died,” Walker says. “He couldn’t believe it. We have movies of him sitting there crying — listening to Art Tatum play.”
Walker delights in knowing that the painstaking work Zenph puts into each Re-Performance has earned respect from crticial listeners around the globe. “Human ears have a [timing] resolution well below a millisecond,” he says. “If we weren’t this accurate, your ears would instantly know. Now we can line up the original recordings with ours, one in each ear, and they match.”