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Last update - 02:49 27/02/2007

Striking the right tone

Throw out the pianist and the orchestra and turn on your computer instead.

Gershon Silbert's new software is likely to be a big hit among producers of commercial music.


By Haggai Hitron

A few weeks ago, dozens of Bach fans received a compact disc with a new piano recording of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). Some of the recipients received the CD without knowing the performer's name, so they would be able to assess the way the piece was played without being influenced by the impact of one famous name or another. 1

When the responses were gathered, it transpired that the audience's impressions were almost identical. Most rated the performance as satisfactory and said it had been without technical faults. But they also asserted that the pianist had not displayed extraordinary virtuosity. Even the most polite respondents, who were wary of insulting the anonymous pianist, stressed that there was no reason to get excited when comparing the rendering with other interpretations of the work, such as that of Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, Murray Perahia or Andres Schiff.

In what seems to be a paradox, these are precisely the reactions the CD's sender, pianist Gershon Silbert, had expected to receive. As far as he is concerned, the experiment he carried out succeeded completely. Only after he had received all the responses did Silbert reveal the truth to those who had participated in the musical survey without knowing its secret: The performer was not a pianist but a computer program. The software was able to produce a correct and proper performance that sounded nice and was true to style; what is known as "a good performance."

The computer program that played the Goldberg Variations utilized samples of a genuine Steinway piano and the software Silbert developed dictates the performance parameters to these samples. The program is able to read notes and instructions about how to perform them, including the numerous degrees of intensity and tempo, slowdowns and accelerations, staccato and legato. It executes complicated patterns made up of several parameters, such as a cadence (a certain combination, known to musicians, which relates to timing and intensity and the changes within them).

Music without a pianist

On the face of it, the program developed by Silbert, who has set up the Silpor Music company, makes it possible to perform music without both a pianist and an orchestra. The software can be operated by any musician who knows how to read notes and how use the program. Within a few minutes, he will hear the result, the entire symphony, in a performance he has dictated, and will be able to change the instructions he gave or to add a personal touch here and there, beyond the fixed parameters.

Silbert says the musical application will be developed into a machine which will simulate the voice of human speakers. The computer will contain samples of a certain human voice and will be able to instruct the voice to read texts with a natural human intonation so it will be impossible to discern that it is a machine that is reading and not the human speaker.

Development of the software began two years ago and was completed a few months ago. It was presented at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show in Los Angeles in January and will also be presented at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt at the end of March. Two patents have been filed on the software and they are currently undergoing final authorization for registration in the United States. The idea itself is not new, Silbert says. "Already in the 1970s, an Australian Jewish musician by the name of Manfred Klein thought of this possibility, but he did not have the technological possibilities available to us today. Since the 1980s, there are 'midi' programs that can play entire works but with a quality that is hard to listen to (particularly in the early days of synthesized sounds) and without any real musical expression. Also, in the past few years, there have been attempts by the two major notation software companies, Finale and Sibelius, to add the capability of performing music with expression to their notation programs. Their success was not great."

In what way does your software excel?

"Our program manages to put back the 'human' dimension into the rigid rhythmical structure. In the 4/4 meter, for example, the division is not into four exactly equal quarter time spans. Instead, each span is slightly different according to the context, just as they would be played by a human musician with taste. In this way, we get music with expression - by making small changes in tempo and punctuation."

Does the program also include the possibility of executing a performance by a vocal soloist?

"Not yet, and there are fundamental problems in that because singing includes both words and music."

Who needs this new development?

"The most obvious users are producers of commercial music, for example for TV and radio commercials or entire soundtracks for films. In productions of this kind, producers don't look for the personal touch, the interpretation of a particular conductor or a certain instrumentalist, but rather a satisfactory performance with the right balance. The investment in the software will pay off within a short time because they won't have to gather players for rehearsals and recordings.

"Another use is the production of educational materials for students and the general public. These programs will make it possible for the user to understand the significance of the varied performance instructions for performing, to add a 'forte,' a 'mezzo forte,' a 'piano,' a 'crescendo,' a 'diminuendo,' an 'accelerando' or a 'ritenuto' and to get immediate results. In this way, an amateur can produce a good result without even knowing how to play at all. Other users could be composers, who can send new works of theirs for appraisal, for example to competitions, and they will be played at a reasonably high level of expression."

Silbert estimates that the software will cost about $200 for non-professional users and between $500-$2,000 for the versions intended for commercial productions. Examples of the program's performances can be heard on the Internet site

Special touch

Gershon Silbert, a pianist and an expert at restoring pianos, did not write the computer program himself. "Computer expert Eddy Hakim put my ideas into practice. During the process, Eddy turned into a computer expert who understands musical performance better than many graduates of musical academies. I, on the other hand, did not become a computer expert."

Will the new software make special soloists and gifted conductors superfluous?

"On the contrary. Since from now on all parameters will be visible, quantified and known, people working with the program will be able to appreciate even more achievements of great artists, for example, pianists who are capable of integrating all the parameters together with a touch of the fingers, almost without thinking, but with the instinct of a genius."

Talking about the artistry of famous pianists is generally linked to praise about the special way in which they touch the keys, which makes it possible to achieve different nuances. Is there such a thing as a special "touch" in playing the piano?

"I knew the answer to that question a long time ago, both as a pianist and, if you will, as the owner of a firm that restores pianos. The common reference to 'touch' is a mystification. But it is well-known that this mystification is certainly helping the pianist from the psychological point of view - as opposed to direct technical instructions. Clearly changes of nuance are an illusion. The nuance of a piano is determined by the excitation of the overtones series when the strings are struck by the hammer. The hammer moves toward the string at a certain speed, that's all. As the Polish pianist Jan Paderewski once said, 'It makes no difference if I strike the key with my finger or with the point of my umbrella.'

"Pianists known as 'bangers' simply play a strong staccato at the wrong places, from the point of view of the musical context. That 'banging', so to speak, can win praise in a Prokofiev sonata. In short, excellence in playing the piano is gained merely by striking the key at the appropriate split second with the appropriate force and by pressing or releasing the key with the finger at precisely the right time. Beyond that, it is not possible to influence the tone."

1. You can listen to the music at: Goldberg Variations BWV 988: Complete [ram], using RealPlayer


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