05 May 2007

Identify the Fake

Something one needs to do in scholarship all the time, and not simply for vases or coins.

I can't claim, however, that any skills I might have in that regard assisted me in --correctly-- picking out the fake from this group of four passages from Beethoven's 7th Symphony. One of them was generated by a computer; the others are performances by actual orchestras.

Two experts asked by the Wall Street Journal were stumped. After you make your attempt (and good luck!), I'll tell you how I was able to pick out the fake on my first try. Let me know how you did.


Ponder Stibbons said...

I picked Reiner's on the first try, because it sounded so unbalanced and stiff. The second try I picked the one that sounded the most disjointed and got it right.

George Charles Allen said...

Looks like two of us got it on the first try. I listened through and the third one struck me immediately, but I couldn't make out why; so I moved on to the fourth. The second time round, I put on my earphones to listen a little more closely, since my laptop speakers aren't very good. Without a doubt, the third struck me odd yet again: it was too unnatural, and just wasn't quite right.

I simply cannot agree with the assertion that this is the wave of the future, and a way of bringing back classical music in a time of declining attendance and whatever other lame reasons Smith might have to offer. This reminded me of a scene in Star Trek where Data, posing as violinist, asked an ambassador which classical piece he'd like to hear and what interpretation he'd prefer, stating that he was capable of playing in the style of Heifetz, Menuhin, Milstein, Kreisler and Stern. Who knows, thirty years hence, this may become a reality. Our concert halls will be filled with musically programmed androids.

If this is a bunch of computer geeks having fun because they've nothing else to do, great! But keep it out of the concert halls, I beg you! A computer, to make an obvious argument, cannot replace human players; it cannot convey human emotion. Music can be reduced to intellectual essentials, of course -- scales, note-values, architectonics, and other mathematical ideas. But the apogee of artistry, the Alpha and Omega of music, and of an artist's technique is feeling, emotion, human sentiment. No, Mr. Smith, this is not the wave of the future, at least not for this genre of music; and no, Mr. Smith, musicians should not embrace this change -- they should become Luddites to this technology and keep the music natural and human. And isn't it strange to have Beethoven's music, music that was inspired by and has a close affinity to nature, to be compiled and played by a most unnatural technology? I would rather hear an 18th century Stradivarius with a human artist, than some pathetic patched together computer rendition.

I wonder what Beethoven's thoughts would be? He was pretty irascible just when publishers tried to affix thematic names to his works; I'd love to see his reaction to this...

And to quote from George Grove's book on Beethoven symphonies from the chapter regarding symphony number seven, he says, "A further development of his wonderful powers and equally wonderful style had taken place, another step towards the accomplishment of his great mission of freeing music from dependence on the mechanical structure in which it had grown up, and on the ingenuity of construction which was still considered one of its merits, and making it more and more the expression of the deepest and most individual emotions of men's nature."

P.S. If you walked by Joshua Bell playing violin at a subway station in D.C., do you think you'd notice? You might be surprised. Check out this article in the Washington Post. The newspaper did a little social experiment to see if Joshua Bell, posing as a street musician, could elicit much attention from D.C. commuters. The article is a little cheesily effusive about Bell, but it's an interesting one. And, alas alack, the outcome is pretty predictable.


Michael Pakaluk said...


I had seen that story on Joshua Bell in the subway, and I was tempted to post something on it, but I didn't in the end, because I think the experiment was flawed. He was playing at rush hour on a work day, before work, i.e. when someone who had wanted to listen would have been doing so on the employer's time, not his own. A better experiment would have had him playing on a weekend.


Michael Pakaluk said...

Here's how one may discover the fake.

(Don't read on if you wish to try first for yourself.)

#2 and #4 may both be eliminated quickly, as not computer generated.

#2 clearly belongs to an earlier era of interpretation, with a slower tempo and lush prominence of strings; not surprising, it is the Reiner recording.

#4 contains a slight detail of interpretation which would unlikely be placed there in a computer generated recording: listen carefully to the clarinet solo line, just at the transition from 4 to 5 seconds, and you'll hear a slight pause of phrasing (not quite a breath), which is very elegant and subtle, and the mark of a human musician playing the solo.

That leaves only #1 and #3. But then #1 can be eliminated also, because if you listen carefully, at 18 seconds there is an imperfection, a kind of wobble, in the tone of the flute.

That is, the fake may be spotted by its lack of idiosyncratic detail or imperfection.

I don't doubt too that, in a longer excerpt, a certain disjointedness would be apparent also, from the fact that the notes are not being produced by musicians who hear that they hear each other, and know that they hear that.

Ponder Stibbons said...

The inadequacy of the fake is very apparent in the full download of the movement. The strings sound very artificial: the simulation can't mimic the phrasing typical of a truly continuous performance (rather than one patched together from discrete segments).

George Charles Allen said...

I would imagine the consistency of the whole is not very good, and I must say it was the string section that was the dead giveaway when I listened. Only on the second hearing did I give any attention to the finer details MP mentioned in his analysis.

Where did you find a download of the entire?

George Charles Allen said...

I can't disagree with this observation, though I do wonder what it says about American values in general; and I do wonder how this experiment would have concluded under similar circumstances in England, Germany, Italy or France? I also wonder how different the result would have been in America on a weekend. I'm not sure it would have been much different, but that may just be my own pessimism speaking.

Regardless, I think it certainly brings up an interesting issue regarding to what extent people can recognize and judge great works of art on their own merits, rather than relying on it being put in a framework, so to say, or taking it on outside authority that something is sublime, such as the Chaconne. Can we recognize a great artwork of Picasso if it's not framed in a museum; can we recognize the most sublime music ever written, if it's not played in a concert hall?

I wrote Gene Weingarten and asked what led him to choose the busiest hour in D.C., and not some leisurely weekend day, such as MP pointed out. I asked if he was aware of perhaps similar experiments made in other countries, and I was also curious what he and his staff considered while deciding to pursue this experiment, and if they might perform another such experiment in the future, under different circumstances. He sent me a response and included this wonderful link which answers all my questions and many, many more: Too Busy to Stop and Hear the Music

Michael Pakaluk said...

I found the full movement by googling "Fauxharmonic" and going to Smith's website.

George Charles Allen said...

Thanks. It should have dawned on me to call upon that cyber bloodhound, Google.