Which Pianist Is Playing What?

Well, that’s the twenty-thousand-dollar question when you are transcribing duo-piano parts note-for-note from 1920s recordings, made before stereo recording was invented.  It’s like solving a sonic Rubik’s Cube. 

When we set out to put together a fireworks-filled overture for our Gershwin show — I think it was in 2011, and the show was then titled Syncopated City (which was the original title of “Fascinating Rhythm;” yes we know, too obscure!) — I collected all kinds of marvelous recordings of duo-pianists playing Gershwin.  Listening to Ohman & Arden, Fray & Braggiotti, Fairchild & Rainger was the fun part.  

Then came the slog. At that time, I was still using a “Riff-o-matic,” which would slow down a recording to 50% without changing the pitches.  But the quality wasn’t great, and some of those runs are dizzyingly rapid.  Happily, mid-way through my work on the overture, my husband Mark discovered an application called iRehearse, which will loop audio clips and slow them down to about 37%, which made all the difference in accuracy.  Still, sometimes a particularly thorny four bars would take two hours to notate.  And the overture ended up being 200 bars long, times two pianos.  

Happily, the pain faded away when I heard Jodie Ricci and Jason Aquila bring it to life for the first time. In fact, the first phrases of “That Certain Feeling,” which is the second tune in the overture (at about 1:10 in the audio clip below), may be my favorite part of the whole show — it doesn’t matter how tired I feel, whenever I hear that I’m suddenly ready to jump for joy.  

Here’s my rough mix of the recording of the “Syncopated City Overture,” a better-sounding version of which will be released on “Retrophonic Gershwin,” coming soon...

The tunes, all transcribed from 1920s recordings or piano rolls, are “Swanee” (from a Claire & Pollack piano roll), “That Certain Feeling” (Ohman & Arden with their Orchestra), “Do-Do-Do” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” (Ohman & Arden and their Orchestra — thanks to Michael Feinstein for help finding this recording!), and “Fascinating Rhythm” (Ohman & Arden with the Carl Fenton Orchestra).  

Here is a photo of Jason, Jodie & I in the booth during a recording session at Oberlin, going over the score for the next take of "Syncopated City." You’ll notice we are all using ipads, running ForScore.  With sometimes only 8 bars on a page, the page turns (more like page whips at this speed) would have gotten quite noisy, so the pianists used blue-tooth foot pedals to turn the pages. Perhaps our motto should be, “Using all the best modern technology to bring the music of the past back to life!”

This is the third in a series of posts about the tunes on "Retrophonic Gershwin," our soon-to-be-released album.  Part 1 is "How I Got Rhythm," and part 2 is "Probably I'll Meet Him at a Soda Fountain.