On duets with dead musicians

I came across a story about technology-created video and audio recordings of current musicians “performing” with legends no longer alive. There were vehement comments on the story.

Amusingly, the story had ended with the observation that “Perhaps there’s a greater sensitivity to such projects in the classical world, which is so often occupied with – and maybe even paralyzed by – very strongly held notions of received tradition and respect.”

Without vehemence, here are some of my thoughts on these “re-performances”.


My first reaction was curiosity, rather than immediate hostility.

There are some people who get pre-emptively angry about something just on the basis of some ideology without even trying something out. These people do things like write negative reviews of books they never read, or complain about proposed legislation that they have never read and whose consequences they have not calculated. Life is short, but I try not to make those kinds of errors. I prefer to claim ignorance or non-opinion rather than have an opinion about everything.

Gheorghiu and Callas

So I clicked on the video clip of soprano Angela Gheorghiu singing the Habanera from Carmen “with” Maria Callas. I’m not a real opera fan (have never been to a live opera performance), but in the past have listened to and watched a lot of Maria Callas singing famous arias. Her raw emotional intensity was unparalleled, but her voice (such as it was in her later years in recordings) had rather imperfect aspects; but overall, I would consider myself a fan of Callas. It is hard not to cry when watching and listening to her sing, say, “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca.

(Aside: I actually took an Italian class because I wanted to sing along to and better understand Italian opera arias, just as I took German for Mozart and Schubert, and took Spanish for rumba, salsa, and tango! Want to get me to learn a language? Find me some beautiful music in that language for me to sing.)

Gheorghiu I confess never having been a big fan of. I tried to discount this fact while evaluating her video.

Fundamentally, I disliked the video because it does not make sense. In its original context, the famous Habanera is sung by Carmen while taunting Don Jose to charm him. A chorus does come in during this aria, but clearly, it is a one-on-one message. It makes no sense being spread out over two Carmens. Also, there is no semblance of actual interaction in this “re-performance”. Video makes this painfully obvious. It’s not as if Callas is alive and reacting to what Gheorghiu does and matching her. Also, as one of the commenters noted, Gheorghiu is not matching Callas, but putting her in a “subordinate position”.

In an audio-only version, one would not notice how asymmetric the “duet” was. It would also be uninteresting and confusing, because the two voices are both high and without contrasting lines. It becomes clear that the whole gimmick of the video is the visual of Gheorghiu on stage.

Joshua Bell and Sergei Rachmaninoff

Then I clicked on the video of Joshua Bell on violin playing “with” Sergei Rachmaninoff on piano (actually, some kind of piano rigged so that its keys are pressed as though a ghost were playing). This was actually kind of interesting.

Again, I have to discount the fact that I have always been a big fan of Joshua Bell.

I can definitely do without the ghostly piano action. I have no interest whatsoever in ever attending a concert where I see a piano being “played” mechanically, even if reproduced from an actual recording by Rachmaninoff himself. I say this even though I had no problem listening to piano rolls from Rachmaninoff or Mahler or others; they were just another form of audio recording. There is a difference between the musical experience I am willing to accept when just listening to audio at home and what I am willing to accept when being physically at a concert or watching a video.

Suppose I were just hearing Bell playing “with” Rachmaninoff, not seeing the video. I tried that. It was pretty good. Note that this music really is inherently a duet for piano and violin. So Bell simply filled in where Fritz Kreisler had originally played with Rachmaninoff. And I think he played very much with an awareness of the piano part and blending musically with it. The only difference from a real duet is that there was no pianist reacting in turn to Bell’s playing. Ideally in a duet you’d have a give and take, while here there is a fixed accompaniment to the violin. I give credit to Bell for being “respectful” and making the most of this constraint.

Extra-musical considerations

Here’s where extra-musical factors can affect our evaluation. I suppose I think that the live audience at Bell’s concert missed out, because some living pianist could have been there playing with Bell and being appreciated, rather than the ghost of Rachmaninoff. The dead have already done their music-making; let the living have their say.

Meanwhile, we cannot pretend that anything outside of being present at a live performance is “pure”. In particular, we know that audio recordings since the dawn of time have involved takes, edits, filtering, overdubbing. An audio recording is its own artifact, whether its the backwards sitars and other effects famously used by the Beatles, or Glenn Gould duplicating segments for repeats and manipulating the sound he wanted to hear back from the recording. We cannot be naive about these things. We accept that films are fiction, and that photos are retouched.

If one really believes in pure, unmediated musical experience, there is only one option: get off the iPod or iTunes or whatever other devices or software, leave the living room, and check out the local music ensembles. Even better, join or form one and participate as a performer! I think it is regrettable that technology has turned music into an abstract commodity rather than a living, participatory activity for everyone. Our society has deemed it necessary for everyone to develop basic competence in reading, writing, and arithmetic; we do not require everyone to be an expert at any of these. Why do we not also expect basic musical competence?


Duets with dead musicians do not really appeal to me, but there are degrees of unpleasantness or weirdness. And the artifice is not all that different from other technological manipulations we already take for granted or choose to ignore.

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