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If you spend any time even loosely associated with the visual arts, you have probably heard the argument that if you can’t tell the difference between a forgery and the original and if you get enjoyment from the work, what is the problem if it is a copy? At the heart of this debate is the question of whether value is based on something real or a delusion we all agree to participate in.
Fortunately, we in the performing arts never really have to worry much about this question because the provenance of a performance is generally never in doubt.
But that may not be the case for much longer. Thomas Cott’s unblinking Sauron-esque gaze caught this little story about a company that isdeveloping a technology that will allow the dead to perform from beyond the grave.
Pop music fans who never had the opportunity to attend concerts featuring their favourite musicians may soon be able to do so, even if they died many years ago, thanks to the EU-funded REVIVOS project.
The project is developing a voice synthesiser which can analyse a singer’s voice and then reproduce it in a way that retains their original character and expression.
‘Imagine Frank Sinatra singing a modern Jason Derulo song but with the expressive style and timbre of Frank Sinatra,’ said Mayor.
Everyone knows Sinatra died when Jason Derulo was 9 years old and won’t mistake the performance as vintage Sinatra.
Tupac Shakur’s productive posthumous career was subject of some skepticism and many jokes, but the fact that enough recorded material existed to produce additional albums means it is easily within the realm of possibility that counterfeit performances can be created thanks to this developing technology.
Mozart’s widow passing off his work as first and final drafts in order raise its value when she was selling it is a centuries old example of how the market for performance works can be manipulated.
People probably record more images of themselves in a single day than Shakur did in his lifetime. It wouldn’t strain credulity if people claimed they had recovered bits and pieces from rehearsal recordings when they actually manufactured entirely new material based on an idea they had last month.
Some artists may want to be careful what they eat if their significant others start assiduously collecting and storing digital files of their work!
So the question comes again. If you were a fan of the artist, enjoyed their newest work and couldn’t discern that it wasn’t an authentic performance until the scandal erupted, were you really cheated?
The other issue that concerned me was whether the 3-D aspect of this technology might cause an even deeper investment in revivals and adaptations of existing works than we are seeing now. Except in the case, it might manifest as a “revival” of performers.
There are already cases where concerts feature performances with holograms or recordings of deceased musicians. What if a movie studio decides they want to license the likeness and voice of Christopher Lee to harness his gravitas for their movies rather than cultivating new talent?
A few years back Ian McKellan warned that the decline of the repertory theatre as a development ground will result in the lack of great actors like himself, Judi Dench and others. There is a chance that recordings of his performances might exacerbate that situation.
The estates of some artists won’t allow it, but others may be pleased to know they can provide for their loved ones after death and establish guidelines in their will for how their likeness may be used.
Heck, some living performers may license the likeness of themselves in their physical prime and live off that in their old age.
While this may seem to be a cynical view of a technology that can certainly have some groundbreaking implications, I can’t help but be depressed that the angle taken in the story is “Hey! We can bring back the greatest performers you are nostalgic for and lend a patina of class to today’s performers.” Rather than, “Hey! We can cultivate, develop and engage people to be more proficient in their pursuits.”