Posts tagged ‘Beethoven’

Barenboim = Rubinstein?


I have always admired Daniel Barenboim, both as a pianist and as a conductor — and not just because years ago, from pictures on disk covers, we looked strikingly alike, see e.g. [1] which could almost be me at that time (Then I went to see him in concert and realized that he was a good 15 centimeters shorter; the pictures were only head-and-shoulders. Since that time the difference of our physical appearances has considerably increased, not compensated, regrettably, by any decrease of the difference of our musical abilities.)

Nowadays you can find lots of good music, an unbelievable quantity in fact, on YouTube. Like this excellent performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto [2] by Barenboim with a Danish orchestra.

If you go to that page and expand the “about” tab an interesting story unfolds. If I parse it right (I have no direct information) it is a record of a discussion between the person who uploaded the video and the YouTube copyright police. It seems YouTube initially rejected the upload on the basis that it violated no fewer than three different copyrights, all apparently for recordings of the concerto: one by the Berlin Philharmonic (pianist not named), one by Arthur Rubinstein (orchestra not named), and one by Ivan Szekely (orchestra not named). The uploader contested these copyright claims, pointing out that the performers are different in all four cases. It took a little more than a month before YouTube accepted the explanation and released the video on 22 April 2012.

Since the page clearly listed  the performers’ names and contained a full video, the initial copyright complaints must have been made on the basis of the audio track alone. Further, the detection must have been automatic, as it is hard to imagine that either YouTube or the copyright owners employ a full staff of music experts to listen all day to recordings on the web and,  once in a while, write an email of the form “I just heard something at http://musicsite.somewhere that sounds suspiciously close to bars 37-52  of what I remember from the `Adagio un poco mosso’ in the 1964 Rubinstein performance, or possibly his 1975 performance, of Beethoven’s Emperor“. (The conductor in Rubinstein’s 1975 recording, by the way, is… Daniel Barenboim.) Almost certainly, the check is done by a program which scours the Web for clones.

It seems, then, that the algorithm used by YouTube or whoever runs these checks can, reasonably enough, detect that a recording is from a certain piece of music, but — now the real scandal — cannot distinguish between Rubinstein and Barenboim.

If this understanding is correct one would like to think that some more research can solve the problem. That would assume that humans can always distinguish performers. On French radio there used to be a famous program, the “Tribune of Record Critics“, where for several hours on every Sunday the moderator would play excerpts of a given piece in various interpretations, and the highly opinionated star experts on the panel would praise some to the sky and excoriate others (“This Karajan guy — does he even know what music is about?“).  One day, probably an April 1st,  they broadcast a parody of themselves, pretending to fight over renditions of Beethoven’s The Ruins of Athens overture while all were actually the same recording being played again and again. After that I always wondered whether in normal instances of the program the technicians were not tempted once in a while to switch recordings to fool the experts. (The version of the program that runs today, which is much less fun, relies on blind tasting, if I may call it that way.) Presumably no professional listener would ever confuse the playing of Barenboim (the pianist) with that of Rubinstein. Presumably… and yet reading about the very recent Joyce Batto scandal [3], in which a clever fraudster  tricked the whole profession  for a decade about more than a hundred recordings, is disturbing.

If my understanding of the situation regarding the Barenboim video is correct, then it remarkable that any classical music recordings can appear at all on YouTube without triggering constant claims of copyright infringement; specifically, any multiple recordings of the same piece. In classical music, interpretation is crucial, and one never tires of comparing performances of the same piece by different artists, with differences that can be subtle at times and striking at others. Otherwise, why would we go hear Mahler’s 9th or see Cosi Fan Tutte after having been there, done that so many times? And now we can perform even more comparisons without leaving home, just by browsing YouTube. Try for example Schumann’s Papillons by Arrau, Kempf, Argerich and — my absolute favorite for many years — Richter. Perhaps a reader with expertise on the topic can tell us about the current state of plagiarism detection for music: how finely can it detect genuine differences of interpretation, without being fooled by simple tricks as were used in the Batto case?

Still. To confuse Barenboim with Rubinstein!

References and notes

[1] A photograph of the young Barenboim: see here.

[2] Video recording of performance of Beethoven’s 5th piano concert by Daniel Barenboim and Det kongelige kapel conducted by Michael Schønvandt on the occasion of the Sonning Prize award, 2009, uploaded to YouTube by “mugge62” and available here.

[3] Wikipedia entry on Joyce Hatto and the Barrington-Coupe fraud, here.

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Computer technology: making mozzies out of betties

Are you a Beethoven or a Mozart? If you’ll pardon the familarity, are you more of a betty or more of a mozzy? I am a betty. I am not referring to my musical abilities but to my writing style; actually, not the style of my writings (I haven’t completed any choral fantasies yet) but the style of my writing process. Mozart is famous for impeccable manuscripts; he could be writing in a stagecoach bumping its way through the Black Forest, on the kitchen table in the miserable lodgings of his second, ill-fated Paris trip, or in the antechamber of Archbishop Colloredo — no matter: the score comes out immaculate, not reflecting any of the doubts, hesitations and remorse that torment mere mortals. 


Beethoven’s music, note-perfect in its final form, came out of a very different process. Manuscripts show notes overwritten, lines struck out in rage, pages torn apart. He wrote and rewrote and gave up and tried again and despaired and came back until he got it the way it had to be.


How I sympathize! I seldom get things right the first time, and when I had to use a pen and paper I  almost never could produce a clean result; there always was one last detail to change. As soon as I could, I got my hands on typewriters, which removed the effects of ugly handwriting, but did not solve the problem of second thoughts followed by third thoughts and many more. Only with computers did it become possible to work sensibly. Even with a primitive text editor, the ability to try out ideas then correct and correct and correct is a profound change of the creation process. Once you have become used to the electronic medium, using a pen and paper seems as awkard and insufferable as, for someone accustomed to driving a car, being forced to travel in an oxen cart.

This liberating effect, the ability to work on your creations as a sculptor kneading an infinitely malleable material, is one of the greatest contributions of computer technology. Here we are talking about text, but the effect is just as profound on other media, as any architect or graphic artist will testify.

The electronic medium does not just give us more convenience; it changes the nature of writing (or composing, or designing). With paper, for example, there is a great practical difference between introducing new material at the end of the existing text,  which is easy, and inserting it at some unforeseen position, which is cumbersome and sometimes impossible. With computerized tools, it doesn’t matter. The change of medium changes the writing process and ultimately the writing: with paper the author ends up censoring himself to avoid practically painful revisions; with software tools, you work in whatever order suits you.

Technical texts, with their numbered sections and subsections, are another illustration of the change: with a text processor you do not need to come up with the full plan first, in an effort to avoid tedious renumbering later. You will use such a top-down scheme if it fits your natural way of working, but you can use any other  one you like, and renumber the existing sections at the press of a key. And just think of the pain it must have been to produce an index in the old days: add a page (or, worse, a paragraph, since it moves the following ones in different ways) and you would  have to recheck every single entry.

Recent Web tools have taken this evolution one step further, by letting several people revise a text collaboratively and concurrently (and, thanks to the marvels of  longest-common-subsequence algorithms and the resulting diff tools, retreat to an earlier version if in our enthusiasm to change our design we messed it up) . Wikis and Google Docs are the most impressive examples of these new techniques for collective revision.

Whether used by a single writer or in a collaborative development, computer tools have changed the very process of creation by freeing us from the tyranny of physical media and driving to zero the logistic cost of  one or a million changes of mind. For the betties among us, not blessed with an inborn ability to start at A, smoothly continue step by step, and end at Z, this is a life-changer. We can start where we like, continue where we like, and cover up our mistakes when we discover them. It does not matter how messy the process is, how many virtual pages we tore away, how much scribbling it took to bring a paragraph to a state that we like: to the rest of the world, we can present a result as pristine as the manuscript of a Mozart concerto.

These advances are not appreciated enough; more importantly, we do not take take enough advantage of them. It is striking, for example, to see that blogs and other Web pages too often remain riddled with typos and easily repairable mistakes. This is undoubtedly because the power of computer technology tempts us to produce ever more documents and in the euphoria to neglect the old ones. But just as importantly that technology empowers  us to go back and improve. The old schoolmaster’s advice — revise and revise again [1] — can no longer  be dismissed as an invitation to fruitless perfectionism; it is right, it is fun to apply, and at long last it is feasible.



[1] “Vingt fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage” (Twenty times back to the loom shall you bring your design), Nicolas Boileau

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