Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Ethics of Electronic Reproduction

Since so much of what we see, hear, read, and talk about has passed through digitization and cyberspace, it's easy to let that fact fade into the background and ignore the myriad of tricks that engineers have put into the hands of video editors, sound recording experts, and crooks. A story about sound-recording fraud with a neat ironic twist was reported recently by John von Rhein, the Chicago Tribune's music critic. It seems that one William Barrington-Coupe, the man behind a small record label called Concert Artists, wanted to make his concert-pianist wife Joyce Hatto look good, or at least sound good, on recordings issued under her name. So he "borrowed" recordings of famous pianists such as Vladimir Ashkenazy and altered the timing just enough to throw off suspicion that would arise if anyone noticed that Joyce Hatto's version of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C sharp minor, for example, lasted two minutes and forty seconds, exactly as long as Vladimir Ashkenazy's. He did this digitally, of course, which is how he got caught.

Seems there is software out there that can compare the bits directly between two digital recordings. Although I don't know the details, I can imagine that a direct bit-by-bit comparison, even with digital time fiddling thrown in, could reveal copying of this kind much more positively than any subjective human judgment. Anyway, somebody tried it out on one of Joyce Hutto's Concert Artist CDs and found that the bits actually originated from the playing of Hungarian pianist Laszlo Simon. Confronted with the evidence, Barrington-Coupe confessed, making publicity of a kind he probably wasn't hoping for.

The Tribune critic von Rhein makes the point that this is only the most egregious case of the kind of thing that has been going on for generations: electronic manipulation of performances to make them sound better. "Better" can mean anything from editing out mistakes and poorly performed passages to complete voice makeovers that can make a raspy-voiced eight-year-old boy sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Von Rhein traces this trend back to the introduction of tape recording and its comparatively convenient razor-blade-and-cement editing techniques, but there's an even earlier example: reproducing piano rolls. As early as the 1920s, inventors developed a system that recorded not only the timing of keystrokes but their force, in sixteen increments from loud to soft, and reproduced these strokes on a fancy player piano that embodied elements of digital technology implemented with air valves and bellows. Famed artists such as George Gershwin recorded numerous reproducing piano rolls, whose dynamics sounded much better than the ordinary tinkly player pianos of the day. It is well known that these reproducing piano rolls were edited by the performers to remove imperfections and otherwise improve upon the live studio performance.

Most people who listen to music these days are at least vaguely aware that even so-called "live" recordings have been doctored somewhat, and few seem to care. When someone strays into outright fraud, as Mr. Barrington-Coupe did, most people would agree that this is wrong. But should we be free to take what naturally comes out of a piano or a horn and transmogrify it digitally any way we wish, while still passing it off as "live" or "original"?

The novelty of this sort of thing is largely illusory. If we pass from the auditory to the visual realm, there is abundant evidence that those who could afford to make themselves look better than reality have done so, all the way back to ancient Rome. Portrait painters, other artists, and craftspeople have always faced the dilemma of whether to be strictly honest or flattering to their subjects. If the subject also pays the bill, and if honesty will not make as many bucks as flattery, flattery often wins out. The fact that flattery can now be done digitally is not a fundamental change in the human condition, but simply reflects the fact that as our media change, we take the same old human motivations into new fields of endeavor and capability.

What is truly novel about the story of Barrington-Coupe and his wife Joyce Hatto is not the intent or act of fraud, but the way he was caught. It was said long ago that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. It often turns out these days that he who attempts to deceive by digital means gets caught by means of digital technology as well. On balance, I don't think we have a lot to worry about concerning musicians who want to sound a little better than reality on their recordings. Those who would forbid them the use of digital improvements are to my mind in the same category as those who want to prohibit the use of makeup by women. Maybe there are good religious reasons for such a prohibition, but it would make the world a little less attractive. The greater danger of digital technology as applied to media appears to me to lie in the area of control by large, powerful interests such as corporations and governments. But that is a discussion for another time.

Sources: John van Rhein's article appeared in the Mar. 4, 2007 online edition of the Chicago Tribune at http://www.chicagotribune.com/technology/chi-0703040408mar04,1,3237470.story?coll=chi-techtopheds-hed (free registration required).

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