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Replicating the Past

David Berger



I just watched a piece on TV about a company called Arte Factum. They create exact replicas of art, from the contents of King Tut’s tomb to Renaissance paintings. Using innovative technology, they are able to scan and enlarge the originals and then recreate their look and texture. Sounds exciting, right?


The thing is that they replicate exactly how those works of art appear today with all their centuries of wear and tear. I’m not sure I see the point of all this, since you can go see the original in the same state of decay. What would really interest me is to see what these works of art originally looked like.


14 years ago there was a cable TV series called Rome, for which a replica of ancient Rome was constructed. I was fascinated by how incomplete my knowledge of ancient Rome was. Everything looked new—the Coliseum, the aqueducts, the streets, buildings, and graffiti. The buildings and statues were all painted.


For me, I’d like as much of the experience as possible of what it would be like to go back in history and see things as they were back then, and to encounter people from those times as they existed in their world.


A couple of days ago I went to the movies to see They Shall Never Grow Old. It starts out as a documentary on World War I using original black and white, silent footage. As soon as the troops get to the battlefield, the footage is scrubbed, slowed down to 24 frames per second, colorized and enhanced with sound effects and dialogue to match the words being spoken in the original silent footage. To add to the experience, the audience is given 3D glasses. This is about as close to war as I’d ever like to get. I was slightly nauseous for an hour and a half. The carnage, disgusting living conditions, and absolute purposelessness of the war sickened me.


I recently got a copy of my family tree that my cousin created about 50 years ago. It was interesting to get a glimpse into my ancestors’ lives. One of my great grandparent’s siblings died in World War I. He was German, which meant that he was fighting against the British, French and Americans. I wonder if he had any idea what he was fighting for. Did anyone? What a waste of a life—of millions of lives!


In the world of music, we have been preserving performances and compositions for the past 100 years. Charlie Parker died two weeks before my sixth birthday, so I never got to see him. Lester Young and Billie Holiday died four years later. With all the technology we have today, wouldn’t it be great to recreate a performance of theirs? To clean up the recordings and create video to match, using original photos of the performers and digitally creating movement to replicate what they might have looked like. Then put it in 3D, so we could be sitting in a club on 52nd Street in the 1940s and Jimmy Carter might be sitting at the next table in his Navy uniform and Bird and Diz just a few feet away on the bandstand.


Or what about Mozart, Beethoven and Bach? I’ve often imagined what it would have been like to hear Bach improvise in a coffeehouse or to see Beethoven playing one of his own piano concerti. Or Mozart just having a conversation about music.


Woody Allen explored this as a fantasy in Midnight In Paris. I loved that movie. Another favorite movie of mine is Total Recall, where in the future, you can purchase the memories of a vacation you never took. You could be an astronaut in space, a spy behind German lines during WWII, or a patron at the Famous Door seeing Count Basie in 1938 or Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club.


As fascinated as I am with what the glories of the past must have been like, I have no interest in recreating art. Maybe that sounds funny coming from the transcriber of over 1000 classic jazz records, but it’s true. At the first meeting of what would eventually become Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis asked me how I would approach performing Ellington’s music. I told him that I had no interest in recreating old records. I would want to hire experienced players and hand them the music as if it had just been written for them today. I got the job.


I feel the same about all the performing arts. If I were to direct Othello, I wouldn’t insist on an all-white, all-male cast, as it was performed in Shakespeare’s day. On the other hand, I’m not big on setting his plays in the future. Part of the beauty of great art is its timelessness. When we watch Greek tragedy, we recognize that people were the same thousands of years ago. I don’t need to be hit over the head with it. Technology changes, but human nature is glacially slow to evolve.


So, I guess what I’m saying is that part of me wants to be able to experience the past, and then, the creative part of me wants to be able to express myself in today’s world. I’m currently preparing a book of 400 Public Domain Songs from Greensleeves (1580?) through Who’s Sorry Now (1923). In addition to researching each song and providing its original melody, chords and lyrics, Chuck Israels and I are offering some more sophisticated harmonies that hopefully will inspire musicians to be creative with these fabulous songs.


The frustration for me is that, as I do this work, I am inspired to write fresh new arrangements on every one of these classics, but since I must write out 10 songs per day, I just don’t have time. I’ve written about 50 arrangements of PD songs over the past 10 years or so. I look forward to writing many more. I love taking material that is familiar to performers and audience alike and giving it a new twist, so that it becomes fresh, modern, and mine.

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  • Brett Rosenberg on

    Hi David – thanks for your consistently excellent posts, such a pleasure to read.
    Best from Melbourne, Brett

  • Lewis Porter on

    Hi David,
    Great post—lots of interesting thoughts! Looking forward to that book you’re doing with Chuck Israels! Hope you’re doing great.
    All the best,

  • David Berger on

    The book will be out this summer. The digital version will be free. I’m not sure about the pricing for hard copy yet. I’ll be selling that through

  • Terry Thompson on

    Great blog. Love every word. So interesting to me.
    When can I purchase this book of tunes you are working on? Please let me know how and when and where do I send the check.
    Good luck always,
    Terry Thompson. 314-660-2363.

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