Monday, February 26, 2007
A Gramophone critic was surprised when his copy of iTunes identified CDs by the late pianist Joyce Hatto as being by other modern pianists. Each disc of hers he fed his computer was identified as the same works but recorded by a different artist. Sonograms of the Hatto recordings and the differently-identified versions were compared and found to be identical. Gramophone broke the news, prompting a confession by Hatto's widower, William Barrington-Coupe, who had issued the ostensible recordings of his late wife.

According to Barrington-Coupe, he only used parts of the other artists' recordings to smooth over bad takes. However, iTunes, or rather the Gracenote service iTunes uses, identifies CDs by a complex hash of attributes including the ID String embedded by the presser, as well as track numbers and durations. For obvious bandwidth reasons, it doesn't sample the actual sound on the recordings so there's no way it could have 'heard' and identified a different pianist from the patching pieces Barrington-Coupe says he dropped in. Rather, the fact that iTunes identified the disc as being of the same works implies that the CD master of the Hatto disc would have to be exactly the same as the 'copied' disc, bit for bit and note for note. Yes, there are sometimes collisions - I remember once being informed by WinAmp that a RedHat Linux CD I'd put in my machine was in fact a compilation of funk anthems by the futuristic Parliament - but the chances of such a collision of attributes happening for two discs of the same works is one in tens of millions.

This makes Barrington-Coupe's confession still unsatisfactory. Gramophone is skeptical:
The question remains as to how much of this confession we should actually believe. It is in some ways a humane, romantic story. However, newspaper investigations following the first Hatto revelations have uncovered shady dealing from Barrington-Coupe’s past. He received a prison sentence in 1966 for failure to pay purchase tax. Whether this throws doubt on his confession now, made only after our revelations and in the light of the fact that he continued to release “Hatto” recordings after his wife’s death, is open to debate.

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