I’m practicing the piano again. My early musical career was cut short by a traumatic Christmas recital (listening to Let it Snow still makes my palms sweat). I figured, however, that a thirteen-year hiatus was enough time to give it another shot—this time with proper discipline and adult-sized hands. In fact, mastering the piano seemed straightforward, especially compared to the cello or saxophone. Just hit the right keys at the right time.
I discovered that my idea of playing the piano wasn’t wrong per se, but simply reductive; even brain surgery can be described as poking the right nerves with the right tools. By design, the piano requires you to multitask. Playing with one hand is already a challenge, but managing both is a Herculean undertaking.
Humbled yet intrigued, I began to wonder: if I—having just graduated from plucking out a C-major scale—was on the lowest rung of the pianistic ladder, what was someone at the top capable of? There’s no shortage of technical and expressive challenges for the most seasoned virtuosos. Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and countless other composers have left us masterpieces that now serve as musical rites of passage. For weeks, I scoured music databases and online forums for the most ambitious, the most impossible compositions written for two human hands.
This is how I discovered Michael Nanasakov. I had just come across a remarkable collection of pieces: the Godowsky transcriptions of Bach’s Sonatas for solo piano. It was the love child of Godowsky’s bravura technique and Bach’s contrapuntal complexity and spiritualism—not made for pianists who are faint of heart. A search on Spotify yielded one complete recording: the album cover was an uncommonly ugly mash of images pulled from the internet, featuring both Bach and Godowsky’s faces, but not the performer’s. Instead, his name—Michael Nanasakov—was relegated to the bottom right corner, in a tiny, pale-blue font. This, coupled with the fact that I had never heard of Nanasakov, didn’t bode well for the recording itself.
The first note of the fugue in G-minor shattered my expectations. Nanasakov played with surgical precision, breathtaking ferocity, and, above all, supreme confidence. Any other pianist would have fumbled with his tempo, but he pulled it off without breaking a sweat. Every voice in the polyphonic texture rang with absolute clarity, as if four people were playing together. Something about his playing gave me chills. It was almost too perfect, so clean that it sounded alien from anything I’d heard before.
His other albums were full of the most difficult works in the piano repertoire: Chopin-Godowsky etudes, Tchaikovsky symphonic transcriptions, the nastiest of Alkan’s concert pieces. Nanasakov blazed through them all with flying colors. He never cheated a passage in octaves or a chromatic run, only stretching the time when the music called for it. Not a single note sounded weaker than the ones that came before or after it.
Despite his remarkable musicianship, Nanasakov had less than 300 monthly listeners. Any of these albums should have been hailed as a landmark achievement, but apparently Nanasakov fans are oddities in the piano world. Either this was one of the greatest injustices of classical music, or I was missing something about the pianist. I decided to take a closer look at Michael Nanasakov.
A single Google search answered all my questions. Michael Nanasakov is not, in fact, the greatest pianist to ever live.
He was never alive to begin with.
Nanasakov is a computer. His owner is a Japanese producer named Junichi Nanasawa, a pianist in his own right. Since 1991, Nanasawa has been releasing albums under Nanasakov’s name, even creating a fictional biography for him (he was born in 1955 in Vilnius, Lithuania). Watching Nanasawa’s recording process was an unsettling experience. He hooks Nanasakov up to a modified grand piano and sits at the bench. The piano then appears to play itself as Nanasawa silently watches with his hands in his lap. Nanasakov always hits the right keys at the right time.
I felt disappointed. But why did I feel disappointed? I had just been fooled by a machine. It was like learning that my favorite athlete was abusing performance-enhancing drugs, invalidating all her accomplishments. But music is not a sport. The point of performing music is to convey great ideas from history’s greatest composers. The only thing I should care about is the genius of Bach and Godowsky, not their messenger. What does it matter if Nanasakov is a Lithuanian or a laptop?
This question has befuddled both music listeners and performers since the advent of sound recording. Each genre has had to contend with technology in different ways. Bebop jazz, for instance, places great weight on improvisational skill and spontaneity, and has little interest in digitizing a recording to some idea of “perfection.” It’s not uncommon for a Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk album to include multiple takes of the same standard. On the other hand, pop and EDM have embraced electronic manipulation with open arms. Techniques such as autotune and track sampling have become fundamental components of their aesthetics. Despite certain generalizations, it’s fair to say that digital technology plays different roles in different musical styles.
Classical music has an uneasy relationship with recording technology. Digital alterations undeniably go against the authenticity we expect from a classical performance. True expression comes from real instruments played by real hands. When someone attends a recital by Yo-Yo Ma or Lang Lang, they have far less tolerance for pre-recorded sound than the audience for a Taylor Swift concert might.
At the same time, we demand perfection from classical musicians. An album with an out-of-tune note is bound to draw the scorn of critics and dock a star off their review. Just a few splices and digital touch-ups could remedy these mistakes, and no one would be the wiser. This is how classical music arrived upon its great recording paradox: every track must be polished to a flawless sheen but still sound completely natural. Classical music is going for the “no makeup” look.
This is a modern phenomenon. The classical music scene today looks very different from the times of Beethoven and Chopin, for two important reasons. First, they’re both dead. This means that the only way to reproduce their music is to read their written scores. As the legacy of historical composers only grows with age, so does the sanctity of their manuscripts, until all we have left is a Platonic ideal of what the music should sound like. The criteria for a faithful performance is subject to a variety of cultural and academic factors, and varies with time, but it always emphasizes the supremacy of the score. Nobody can challenge what Beethoven has written because nobody is Beethoven anymore.
Secondly, recording technology has gifted us a powerful measuring stick. For the first time, we can now dissect each sound byte of a recording, determine its best qualities, and hold every musician to the same criteria. These changes have set the bar for performances skyrocketing; they’ve also significantly narrowed the definition for what is acceptable practice.
This culture of perfectionism takes a heavy toll on a musician’s mental health. In a study on musical performance anxiety, psychologist and pianist Franciscka Skoogh identifies the high prevalence of stress among classical musicians as a consequence of “the result of a wider structural issue related to the commodification of classical Western music and its focus on perfection and virtuosity.” As classical music training typically starts at a very young age, musicians carry this psychological burden throughout their lives. Skoogh recounts her own experience with anxiety while preparing for a concert featuring Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto:
“If I could have chosen between being myself at the moment of performing the Rachmaninov concerto or switching to be the flawless cyborg version of me, I would without a doubt have chosen the cyborg. Why? Out of respect for the work, out of respect to the audience, the cyborg would have been the perfect solution, without fear and without strong feelings of discomfort.”
Nanasakov embodies Skoogh’s “perfect solution.” Reading Nanasawa’s treatise on his robot creation, it’s clear that Nanasakov was never meant to be a vanity project. His purpose is not to put human performers to shame, but rather to play the most inaccessible pieces in the piano repertoire the way they were meant to be heard. Nanasakov was an inevitability in the culture of classical music. All it took was for someone to reason that, if we want human performers to play like a machine, why not a machine that plays like a human?
The 20th-century Canadian pianist Glenn Gould arrived at a similar conclusion. Equally brilliant and eccentric, Gould had already garnered a reputation as one of the greatest Bach interpreters of all time when he suddenly stopped holding concerts at the age of 31. He spent the rest of his career secluded in a recording studio, releasing a slew of critically acclaimed albums but never returning to the recital hall. To form his final cuts, Gould notoriously ran through an excessive number of takes and spliced together only the best examples. Sony Classical recently released a boxed set of all his outtakes for his 38 minute-long original recording of the Goldberg Variations, which totaled at five hours across five CDs.
In a series of essays, Gould professed an intense hatred for live audiences, which he perceived as “a force of evil.” He considered digital alteration a necessary and obvious tool for delivering the finest product. A listener shouldn’t expect a track to have been created in the same duration as its final length, in the same way that nobody thinks of a two-hour movie as having been put together in two hours. Indeed, he regarded it as “self-evident truth” that electronic media would one day replace live performances altogether.
Contemporaries objected to these ideas on artistic and even moral grounds, but Gould dismissed these points as the natural consequence of technophobia:
The furor it occasioned is, I think, indicative of an endearing, if sometimes frustrating, human characteristic reluctance to accept the consequences of a new technology. I have no idea whether this trait is, on balance, an advantage or a liability, incurable or correctable. Perhaps the escalation of invention must always be disciplined by some sort of emotional short-selling. Perhaps skepticism is the necessary obverse of progress. Perhaps, for that reason, the idea of progress is, as at no time in the past, today in question.
Gould’s argument is compelling. It’s also a reflection of our modern classical music paradigm. His stance is steeped in obsessive control, an absolute belief in the ends justifying the means. It buys into the notion that there is such a thing as the optimal performance, and that delivering it is all that matters in the end. For Gould and Nanasawa, “authenticity” is an antiquated concept, an excuse for failing to measure up against what the music demands.
The most common and ineffectual rebuttal against this view is that imperfection is perfectly acceptable as long as you stay true to yourself. This is a glaring white lie in the music industry. There’s a reason why classical musicians are chasing after ever-rising peaks of technique and artistry. Audiences, critics, and the industry as a whole have no tolerance for anything less, no matter how unhealthy this pursuit may be. In an age where music listeners can choose from hundreds of performances of the same work with a single YouTube search, falling short of the universal standards means falling by the wayside. Prioritizing some “human element” over optimization comes at too great a risk.
This brings me back to the original question. Why should I care if Nanasakov is a human or not? Or, for that matter, why should I care if Gould’s recording is made in a single take or twenty? I thought back to why I had become interested in piano music in the first place. It was because I had started learning the piano.
Even though I was miles away from approaching the Bach-Godowsky sonatas, hearing Nanasakov’s performance for the first time made me think of what it must feel like to play them. I imagined the raw adrenaline that must have filled his veins when he started the stretto passage, or the spiritual satisfaction he must have experienced in the final bars. When I discovered Nanasakov’s true identity, my greatest disappointment was that the source of these vicarious thrills was an illusion.
After Franciska Skoogh finished what she believed to be a failed performance of Rachmaninoff’s third concerto, she was shocked to hear overwhelming applause. By exposing her vulnerabilities rather than hide them, she conveyed something that could not be found in the musical score. Her willingness to show fear and her determination to complete the monumental concerto won the audience over. As one critic later wrote:
“With Franciska Skoogh as soloist we were brought right into a flow that in the most humane way tears up what is hidden and exposes the locked-up emotions and hard-wired pain on its unstoppable urge to move ahead. Skoogh and the orchestra made this music noisy, trickle and sing in a remarkable way. And leading to the incredible progression of chords, in the last few bars that this evening truly sounded like the world’s most beautiful melody. The fact that the audience cried openly was not surprising. The triumph afterwards was deafening.”
We typically define “authenticity” as a measure of how accurately a recording matches a player’s ability. I think a more meaningful measure of authenticity is how closely the recording matches what the player feels and thinks, moment to moment. The communication of inner thoughts to an audience is one of the most profound functions of classical music. As powerful as recording technology has become, manipulating a track takes away from this authenticity.
So yes, I’m still struggling with the most basic Bach. And Nanasakov plays better than I ever will. But I’m enjoying playing the piano infinitely more than he does, and that makes a world of difference.
- Admin, WordPress. “The Book. 6.12 The Composer Knows Best.” Challenging Performance, challengingperformance.com/the-book-6-12/.
- Edidin, Aron. “Playing Bach His Way: Historical Authenticity, Personal Authenticity, and the Performance of Classical Music.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 32, no. 4, 1998, p. 79., doi:10.2307/3333387.
- Gould, Glenn. “The Prospects of Recording.” High Fidelity, Apr. 1966, pp. 46–63.
- Nawasawa, Junichi. “MICHAEL NANASAKOV since 1991.” MICHAEL NANASAKOV Virtual Pianist, www.nanasakov.com/index.html.
- Oestreich, James R. “Films About Glenn Gould Arrive, Providing a Path Into the Mind of a Musician.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Oct. 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/10/20/arts/music/20goul.html.
- Oron, Aryeh. “Glenn Gould (Conductor, Piano, Organ).” Glenn Gould (Conductor, Piano, Organ) – Short Biography, Aug. 2001, www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Gould-Glenn.html.
- Siegel, Robert, and Tom Huizenga. “The Gould That Didn’t Glitter: New Box Set Of ‘Goldberg Variations’ Outtakes.” NPR, NPR, 25 Oct. 2017, www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/10/25/559611543/the-gould-that-didnt-glitter-new-box-set-of-goldberg-variations-outtakes.
- Skoogh, Francisca, and Henrik Frisk. “Performance Values – an Artistic Research Perspective on Music Performance Anxiety in Classical Music.” Journal for Research in Arts and Sports Education, vol. 03, no. 01, 2019, pp. 1–15., doi:10.23865/jased.v3.1506.
- Wigler, Stephen. “The Price Of Perfection Classic Dilemma: Recordings Have Brought Perfection to Classical Music, but Also a Perfectionist Mentality. Spontaneity Is Being Replaced by a Dangerous Emphasis on Minutiae.” Baltimoresun.com, 23 Oct. 2018, www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1995-12-24-1995358100-story.html.