Duet with the Dead

A guest post by Ginger Dellenbaugh

One of my first memories of classical music was the annual viewing of a film strip illustrating Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, with watercolor illustrations by Harold Dexter Hoopes, in a music appreciation class before Hallowe’en. (A full version of the piece, with requisite beeps, can be seen at Lost Media Archive). Just as vividly as it did then, the music seems irrevocably paired with Hoopes’ lush, dynamic images: the bow of a violin in the bony hand of a green skulled specter, the identical S curves of the bodies in a skeletal chorus line, the vivid orange and red of the rooster who announces the sunrise. One image, however, stands out in particular  when the xylophone is first heard: a skeleton, ostensibly alive, plays a row of femurs. This struck me as ghoulish then as it does now—the animated skeleton in the role of an enthusiastic musician playing, quite literally, the remains of the dead.

In 1991, actress and R&B singer Natalie Cole won the Grammy for Song of the Year with “Unforgettable,” a sentimental tune first made popular by her famous father, Nat King Cole, in the early 1950s. What was striking about Natalie Cole’s new version was less that she was following in her father’s footsteps, but rather that the song had been restyled as a duet from beyond the grave. Nat King Cole passed away in 1965, and yet, through the suture of technology, his daughter was suddenly singing with him. Live performances of the remake/revivification accentuated this epochal blending—Natalie Cole, live on stage, would sing to a video of her father, as if, like a ghost in the machine, he could actually sing back. Like a memory materialized, the images defied the passage of time; the image of the father was younger than his performing daughter.

What was initially a musical novelty has become something of a capitalist reflex. In 2021, A Sentimental Christmas with Nat “King” Cole and Friends: Cole Classics Reimagined was released, featuring “duets” between Cole and living stars like Kristen Chenoweth, John Legend, and Gloria Estefan. The reimagining, unfortunately, isn’t an improvement; Cole’s original vocals have been nestled into arrangements of cheap, plastic sounding arrangements. Elvis, too, has undergone the father/daughter reunion treatment. From a duet in the 90s with “Don’t Cry Daddy,” to a version of “In the Ghetto” to honor the 30th anniversary of her father’s death to the recent release of “Where No One Stands Alone,” Lisa Marie Presley has made a habit of singing duets with her famous father. For both Natalie Cole and Lisa Marie, in particular, these duets fulfill an impossible, poignant encounter, as both their fathers died when they were young.

Elvis is a particularly desirable duet partner. A video from 2007 shows Celine Dion singing “If I can dream” with a realistic Elvis on American Idol; the effect was cobbled together from performance footage of Elvis from the late 60s and the body of a live Elvis impersonator. Barbara Streisand sang a version of “Love Me Tender” with Elvis in 2014. Other unholy matches include Rod Steward and Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Marley and Lauryn Hill, and Barry Manilow sings “Dream Duets” with 11 singers who couldn’t refuse.

More recently, however, this trend has taken a more drastic turn. On his latest album, New Standards, Kenny G has a track called “Legacy” where he plays a duet with something-like-Stan Getz. The Getz line, created with “authorized sample programming,” is a Getz line that Getz himself certainly never played, and never authorized. In a pitch for the album on Facebook, Kenny G writes: “To say I’m honored to duet with Stan Getz is an immense understatement. I hope people that have not heard Stan’s music before will be touched, as I have been, by the man whose nickname is “The Sound.””

Who is this “Getz” that G is talking about? Is Stan Getz merely a “sound?” Or put more broadly, is an artist simply a collection of gestures? A stockpile of affectations? Artists have always looked to the past for inspiration. Opera singers, in particular, benefit from mining recording for vocal affect, imitating other singers as they learn to create their own repertoire of expressive devices. This is not seen as “robbing” the dead, but merely expands the tradition of teacher/pupil imitation practice standard in vocal pedagogy.  And while at the advent of recording there was a certain anxiety about dead voices, we have grown so accustomed to their presence that we don’t even question their afterlife.  As recordings have accrued and penetrated nearly all aspects of life, from speakers in restaurants, subways, advertisements and public spaces, to the personal soundtracks in headphones, contemporary listening is dominated by dead voices. The connection between these recordings and their origins, however, was never in question, even when brought forward into the present, re-edited and made into ‘duets.’ Until recently, it had been understood that an artist’s productive craft died with them.

Of course, in reanimating artists with AI to create ‘new’ work, there is money to be made, without the troublesome artists getting in the way. One benefit is continuing a profitable franchise—a capitalist zombie culture fantasy. For artists, it also enables an encounter on equal footing, a presumption of ‘collaborative’ creativity. The revivification of items from our cultural necropolis, however, is a broader symptom of more than just greed. In a world where culture seems to emerge, develop, and die faster than we can consume it, such a process attenuates and transforms iconic figures into a form of nostalgia comfort food. This is a nostalgia beyond personal experience, beyond bodies, beyond artistic autonomy. Soft, toothless, culturally self-soothing “art.”

And yet, such technology holds endless potential. When AI does the labor that had traditionally been performed by a living artist, it is not limited to the body. There is no reason, for example, why any AI must be restricted to reproducing the affect of one particular artist. The possibility for the ultimate transmogrification is endless: late style Coltrane-Monk-marimba improv, perhaps, or Robeson timbre-Prince affect-soprano range aria, or Woodstock Hendrix-Buddy Emmons-“Amazing Grace.” The artist at the helm of such a project would be a sonic necromancer, both repurposing and eroding what had been, for at least a century, a fixed legacy. I can’t decide if the prospect is thrilling, chilling, or a bit of both. 

Maria Callas Lyric and ColorAtura Arias cover

Ginger Dellenbaugh is a music historian who has taught and written about music and politics, the cultural techniques of the human voice, and vernacular notation systems. She lives in New York City and Vienna, Austria.

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