His software sang the words of God. Then it went silent.
Who was Thomas Buchler, the late creator of beloved Torah program TropeTrainer? And can anything be done to revive his life’s work?
This would be easier if you could hear it for yourself.
I can tell you what TropeTrainer was, what it did, and what it meant to people. I can tell you about the person who made it, about what happened after he died, and what was lost.
But I can’t quite describe that voice.
I first heard it played to me over the phone from a copy that hadn’t yet ceased to function. It was a voice unlike any I’d ever heard: not human but made by humans, generated by a piece of computer code dating to the 1980s, singing words of a text from the Bronze Age in a cadence handed down, from one singer to another, over thousands of years.
TropeTrainer was software that had been taught to sing the words of God.
Then it went silent.
“Much of what he left behind must be unraveled to understand the genius that was his mind.”
For two decades, Jewish clergy across the country had come to depend on TropeTrainer to help prepare kids for their bar and bat mitzvahs, rites of passage in which young adults chant aloud from the Torah for the first time.
But the software wasn’t just a study aid — it was a deep archive of sacred text and music, comprising dozens of different traditions, made easily searchable and infinitely customizable.
“There is other software out there,” says Carrie Shepard, a Torah tutor in Davis, California. “They’re not the same. They don’t have this level of detail.”
But in the fall of 2019, Shepard’s copy of TropeTrainer abruptly became obsolete.
The first warning Shepard got was when she went to update her Mac, and the system warned her that TropeTrainer wouldn’t run on the newest OS. She held off on the update and emailed Kinnor, the software company that made the program: Are you going to address this? She’d corresponded with Kinnor before when she needed tech support, but this time she didn’t get a response. So she sent a snail mail letter. Still nothing.
Shepard couldn’t figure out why the company wasn’t dealing with the problem.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she lamented to a friend. “What could have happened?”
“Didn’t you hear?” the friend said. “The developer died.”
Shepard had always envisioned offices full of programmers all working on TropeTrainer’s dazzlingly complex code. Now she learned that it had all been made by a single programmer, Thomas Buchler, and Buchler had died in July, suddenly, at the age of 65.
“It had to have been a labor of love,” she tells me when we speak in 2020. “I didn’t realize this was one man’s work.”
A technical problem suddenly felt like a personal loss. She wondered what kind of person Buchler had been. She wished she’d known him.
“I was bereft,” Shepard says.
So were many others. And they were scrambling to save what they had. Some, like Shepard, didn’t dare update their OS or, in some cases, even reboot their computers; others were frantically printing out as much hard copy of TropeTrainer’s musical notation as they could.
At one synagogue in East Windsor, New Jersey, there was only a single computer still running an old enough version of Windows to support TropeTrainer; the assistant rabbi there, Matt Nover, set up a way to remotely access it from their other, more up-to-date machines.
“It’s only good for as long as that computer lasts,” Nover tells me in 2020. “Once that computer is gone, we are out of luck.”
Eventually, Kinnor issued a statement: Without its creator, TropeTrainer could not be updated and would no longer be supported.
“As this was the dream and work of one man,” the statement read, “much of what he left behind must be unraveled to understand the genius that was his mind.”
TropeTrainer would therefore be “on hold” until those answers were found. “We know this will cause sadness and inconvenience for many, and as Tom’s partner and friend, I have grieved to take this drastic step.”
It was signed “Zakai ben-Chaim.”
The letter left TropeTrainer aficionados like Shepard with many questions.
Who was this partner, Zakai ben-Chaim? Who was Thomas Buchler, and what had happened to him? And most importantly, could TropeTrainer ever be resurrected — or had that eerie voice been silenced for good?
In 1995, Rabbi Yaakov Zucker arrived in Key West, Florida with the mission of building an Orthodox Jewish community there. He was happy to discover that several members of the local, more liberal temple, B’Nai Zion, were interested in learning about Orthodox traditions.
One of them was a retired computer engineer named Tom Buchler. He was in his forties; as a child, he’d had his bar mitzvah, but his interest in Judaism had been rekindled only recently.
He started showing up every morning to study religious texts with Zucker. Buchler was moving toward becoming a ba’al teshuvah, which in Hebrew means “master of the return” — a Jew who takes up Orthodox practice later in life.
He and Zucker became friends, and Buchler became a founding member of Zucker’s nascent congregation. They spoke often about the nuances of Jewish life and law. But there were many other things the two didn’t discuss.
For example, Zucker had no idea that Buchler had founded a short-lived jazz record label as a 24-year-old in the late 1970s, when he was taking a lot of acid, and had produced several records by the outsider jazz artist Sun Ra. (“People are sleeping,” Buchler quoted Ra as telling him, in his liner notes for a reissue of the album Lanquidity. “The right music can wake them up.”)
Zucker also didn’t know about Buchler’s involvement, in his thirties, with Erhard Seminars Training (est) — a quasi-spiritual offshoot of the Human Potential Movement that claimed to “transform one's ability to experience living” — which had emboldened him to come out as gay.
On the other hand, Zucker did know that Buchler’s Austrian-born mother had survived the Holocaust, traveling to London and then New York to evade the Nazis. (In the U.S., she married the wealthy heir to a scientific-instruments manufacturer; Tom was their only child.) And he was aware that Buchler lived with his partner, a non-Jew named Tom Clark. (Clark later changed his name to Thornton Noel Ussry.)
Orthodox Judaism doesn’t officially permit same-sex relationships, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of gay Orthodox Jews, and Zucker takes a tolerant view. “Not everybody keeps all 613 commandments,” he says.
One day — Zucker doesn’t remember exactly when, but it must have been in 1998 or 1999 — Buchler approached him about a project he was working on. He was creating software, he said, that would teach people to chant Torah.
The idea had come to him when he was still attending B’Nai Zion, during a time when, as his friend Sid Wharton puts it, Buchler was “transferring from being hedonistic to being very, very religious.” The B’Nai Zion rabbi had suggested that he try to re-memorize his long-ago bar mitzvah parsha, the section of scripture he’d read aloud during his coming-of-age ceremony. Buchler had demurred, but the rabbi sent him home with a cassette recording of the passage in question.
In the 1970s, home-recorded cassette tapes had been a huge technological innovation in teaching Torah: No longer did students have to study for hours with an older, learned Jewish adult; they could take home a cassette and learn from that. Some rabbis felt that this made the transmission of Torah an automated, machine-based experience; they worried the personal connection between generations would be sacrificed in the name of convenience.
For Buchler, however, the tape wasn’t convenient enough. There had to be a better way than winding and rewinding a cassette, he thought, and as an experienced software engineer he set out to create one.
But in order to do so, he first had to learn a code much older than any he was familiar with.
What was seen as a perversion by some was the only way for the knowledge to survive at all.
Every written word or short phrase in the Torah is assigned one of a body of musical motifs, known collectively as cantillation or trope in English, or ta’amim in Hebrew. The words of this text had been written down, in the consonant-only Hebrew alphabet, by sometime around 400 to 600 BCE; but as the musical component continued to develop, it remained an entirely oral tradition. As more written texts were added to the Jewish sacred canon, they, too, were set to trope and sung aloud.
Then, in 70 CE, Rome conquered the area that is now Israel and the West Bank, and much of the Jewish population dispersed across the ancient world. As communities became more isolated from each other, the oral tradition of trope began to mutate.
This was a huge problem. Trope are not just melodies — they also function as punctuation, musically joining linguistic clauses or separating them, indicating different kinds of pauses and where verses end. Getting the trope wrong can radically distort the meaning of the text.
Several groups of Jewish scholars, alarmed by this, began working on a solution. What emerged, over several centuries, was a data-storage innovation: a set of marks above and below the letters that indicate both vowels and, crucially, the correct trope for each segment of the text.
The scholars who developed these marks came to be known as Masoretes, from a Hebrew root meaning to pass down — though some argue the term derives from another root, meaning to tie down. The system was refined and standardized in the first half of the 10th century CE by a scribe named Aaron ben Asher, the scion of a long line of Masoretes; ben Asher also composed a detailed system analysis and user’s manual.
“They were recording as carefully as they could what they thought to be the best, most accurate reading tradition,” trope scholar Hayyim Obadyah explains to me.
This solution was not without controversy: Just like cassettes, trope marks automated what had been a human interaction. Encoding information in written form stops it from changing — ties it down, fixes its form — but it also frees the information to be transmitted without the approval of experts. Nonetheless, what was seen as a perversion by some was the only way for the knowledge to survive at all.
“I spent hours and hours building that program with him.”
More than a millennium later, Rabbi Zucker began to meet with Buchler to teach him the trope marks and the musical motifs they encode.
“I spent hours and hours building that program with him,” Zucker says. “I taught him the religious side, and he programmed it into that program.”
Zucker asks me if I knew what became of Buchler’s computer, the one that contains the source code for TropeTrainer. To this day — several years after the program ceased to be supported — Zucker still gets calls from rabbis hoping he can help them regain a working copy.
Had I been in touch with Buchler’s widower, Zakai? he asks.
“I would like it if Zakai gave me the computer,” he says, “and it could be revived somehow.”
Once Buchler understood the system of trope marks, he had to find a way for his software to do what the cassette tape could do: produce, on command, the sound of a voice chanting Torah.
At first, he thought he could just record each verse or phrase as a sound file and have the program play it back. This is how most modern computer voices, like Siri’s, work.
But this would require a huge sound library, too big for a single hard drive to hold — and since this was still the days of Web 1.0, storing files in the cloud to be retrieved by an always-online computer, as Siri does, wasn’t an option.
What Buchler needed was a true speech synthesizer, a program that could generate its own sound files from scratch. There was only one option: the DECtalk text-to-speech voice engine.
“He wanted the engine because it was the only one that had half a chance of being able to sing the way it needed to sing,” Stacey Schnee tells me.
“Torah trope can go up and down, twist and turn and flutter and rise and fall.”
Schnee, a software engineer in Worcester, Massachusetts, was working at DECtalk’s parent company when Buchler first enquired about the program, around 1999. DECtalk was by then a relatively ancient piece of software. It had been initially developed in the early 1980s by pioneering MIT scientist Dennis Klatt, and had started life as hardware: a standalone box large enough to comfortably support a house cat. The disabled physicist Stephen Hawking was an early adopter; he famously used DECtalk to communicate for the rest of his life, refusing to upgrade to any other program.
DECtalk could convert ASCII text into phonemes, the basic units of spoken language, and string them together into something the human ear could interpret as speech. Crucially, it could also play phonemes at specific musical pitches.
At the time, besides English, the engine supported only Spanish and German; introducing each of those languages had been a difficult project for a team of programmers to complete. (“The modification of a text-to-speech system for a new language is a very time consuming task,” wrote one researcher in a report on the German conversion, “which requires a high amount of language specific knowledge in phonetics and linguistics and of knowledge in signal processing and program development.”)
Buchler began reading up on linguistics, signed a licensing agreement, and — with Schnee as a guide — got to work.
There were several unique challenges facing him. First, Hebrew includes phonemes that don’t exist in any of the supported languages, so Buchler had to cobble together a phoneme set from the closest sounds available.
“He took some English and a couple of German sounds and put it together and got something that was… okay,” Schnee says.
Hebrew also uses an entirely different alphabet from the supported languages, so Buchler had to adapt the engine to read Hebrew Unicode characters. Each letter can be pronounced several different ways, so the program had to include the complex linguistic rules governing sound changes.
Finally, Buchler had to teach DECtalk to interpret trope marks — to turn the text not just into speech, but into song.
“He had to figure out how to put the all phonemes in with pitches and duration, in order to get it to sing exactly how he needed it to,” Schnee says. “If you just tell it to sing an F sharp or whatever, it would just sing that phoneme with that note, and that would be it. But that’s not how you sing Torah trope.”
Do I know, she asks, what happened to Buchler’s computer?
Schnee’s mother is a rabbi, so she had a good understanding of what Buchler was trying to do. It wasn’t a trivial problem, she says.
“Torah trope can go up and down, twist and turn and flutter and rise and fall,” she told me. “All the different things Torah sounds can do, he had to [program] and come up with all those rules himself.”
Schnee and one of her colleagues, Edward Bruckert, eventually created a special set of Hebrew phonemes for Buchler, and added different kinds of pauses to make the musical cadences more natural. But it was Buchler who made it all function, Schnee says: “He’s the one who generated all of that logic.”
For six versions of the software, and nearly two decades of her life — even well after she left DECtalk in 2006 — Schnee continued to work with Buchler to refine and adapt TropeTrainer’s voice. In all that time, they never met. When they spoke on the phone or over email, they didn't talk about their personal lives. When Schnee transitioned to living as a woman, Buchler didn’t make anything of it. Even when Schnee briefly made international news, in 2013, for her local protests on behalf of female toplessness, Buchler never brought up the topic.
In the months before Buchler’s death, Schnee had been working with him to fix a bug in the software’s latest iteration. She kept telling Buchler that it would be easier to figure out the problem if he could send her his source code. But he didn’t.
She still has a copy of the voice engine he coded: “I’m the only one in the world who has it.” But without the rest of the code, she says, “the engine becomes a little bit useless.”
All that source code would have been on Buchler’s computer.
Do I know, she asks, what happened to it?
“Tom Buchler was a genius,” Sid Wharton says.
It’s the first thing he tells me when I call him up, less than a year after Buchler’s death.
“I’d watch him program, and it was all in his head — he wasn’t consulting any books,” Wharton says. Buchler would just sit down and type, he says, as if he was writing in English and not a programming language like C or Lua.
They first met in 1999, in the small B’Nai Zion choir. Buchler was a baritone and Wharton was a tenor. As the most religious person in the room, Buchler once made the rest of the choir wait for him to start practice while he performed evening prayers alone, Wharton recalls.
In 2002, an arsonist burned down most of the B’Nai Zion synagogue. Buchler and Wharton — a retired special ed teacher who’d taken a course on Dreamweaver web design software at a community college — collaborated on a fundraising website to repair the damage. Afterwards, Buchler hired Wharton to help him flesh out the bare-bones TropeTrainer site.
As he worked with Buchler hour after hour, week after week, they became friends.
That was how Wharton became Buchler’s assistant. He would return again and again to Buchler’s big, Polynesian-style house on Alberta Drive, first to design the website, then to pack and ship software, then to work on marketing strategies, and finally to test out the software.
Wharton is something of a loner; he has Asperger’s syndrome, and describes himself as asexual. Even in the queer, Jewish world of Key West, he says, he doesn’t make friends easily.
But as he worked with Buchler hour after hour, week after week, they became friends.
The big house was divided in two. Buchler and his non-Jewish partner — whom Wharton knew as Noel — had been together nearly 20 years, but they lived companionably in different wings, sharing the cats. Noel had heart disease and his health was precarious, so sometimes Wharton would stay over to look after him when Buchler was away selling TropeTrainer at Jewish music conferences or rabbinical conventions.
At one such conference, Buchler met Neil Schwartz, a cantor, who volunteered to help notate the software’s trope melodies. He also helped Buchler create a more legible Hebrew font.
“He and I spent an entire week sitting side-by-side in his office, in front of three computers and five screens, fine-tuning the shapes of the tropes and the exact placement of dots around letters,” Schwartz recalls.
Schwartz eventually became a paid consultant, helping to turn musical notation into DECtalk code and developing a companion software called Tefillah Trainer, for those who wanted to learn the prayers used with phylacteries. That brought the TropeTrainer staff to a grand total of three — four if you count Schnee, who was never on payroll.
“Tom worked best alone,” Schwartz says.
TropeTrainer became popular quickly. Even in the early versions, the software’s functionality was impressive: Users could view Torah readings in Hebrew, in English, or in transliteration — with color coding to make it easier to see the trope. Any of those views could be printed out. There were training exercises and a perpetual Jewish calendar built in. Eventually there would be a mobile app.
In a wink to exasperated Torah tutors, he devised the slogan “Software With Infinite Patience.”
Most magical was the voice synthesis, which featured an adjustable timbre and a playback speed, Buchler boasted on his website, that could be set “from unbearably slow to comfortably fast.”
In a wink to exasperated Torah tutors, he devised the slogan “Software With Infinite Patience.”
The software also included seven different trope styles, or nusach. The Masoretes had been successful in fixing the proper trope to each word and phrase of Torah. But they hadn’t created true musical notation. The trope marks are ideographic, like symbols in written Chinese: Each mark stands for a short sequence of notes, but you can’t tell just by looking at the mark what the notes are.
After centuries of separation, Jews in Morocco, in Amsterdam, in Lithuania, in London, and dozens of other enclaves each came to sing the same trope to their own distinct melodies — even though they used the same trope marks and the trope had the same meaning. Much in the way the character 山 is pronounced shan by a Mandarin speaker and yama by a Japanese speaker — and means “mountain” to both of them.
The styles built into the first version of TropeTrainer were mostly slight variations on the most commonly used nusach. But wherever he went, Buchler was approached by Jews who wanted to know if he could add the specific style they or their congregation or their family used. Often, these were nusach that were becoming less and less used as Jewish communities consolidated and assimilated. Whenever he could, Buchler obliged. Often, those rarer styles would appear in the next edition of the software.
Eventually TropeTrainer came to include 29 different trope traditions — quadruple the number it started with. It had become more than a learning tool; it was an archive.
The cantors I speak with tell me that today, you could probably look up most or all of those traditions in the library of, say, Hebrew University. But TropeTrainer made all those nusach easily accessible. You could toggle from one to the other; you could have TropeTrainer sing to you in the different voices of the Jewish Diaspora, one by one.
A new partner
One day in 2004, Wharton came to work at Buchler’s house and found the gate open. Buchler was sitting on the patio.
“That’s when he told me,” Wharton says.
Noel had died.
“No work got done that week,” Wharton says.
In the years afterward, Buchler continued working on TropeTrainer, but he wondered aloud sometimes if he should take a wife. It would be the correct Orthodox thing to do; it would fulfill a commandment.
“I remember telling Tom, ‘I’ll support you in whatever you do,’” Wharton says. “I had my reservations about it. But it never came to pass.”
Instead, in 2012, Buchler moved to New York. That’s where he met his husband, Zakai ben-Chaim.
“He had a way of turning life on its ear and being willing to ask the questions, and he loved investigating the answers.”
No one I speak to, including Wharton, knows how to reach ben-Chaim. Finally, I find an address for him in Florida, and I track down the real estate agent who’d sold it. She says she’ll text him my number.
“I wish I’d reached out to you sooner,” ben-Chaim says when he finally calls me in the spring of 2021. He’d had his hands full. He’d been mourning, and there were legal problems that had arisen, and he was taking care of a newborn. Plus COVID. It had been a difficult year.
He had met Buchler in November 2015, through a dating app. At the time, ben-Chaim was preparing to move to Israel — the culmination of a spiritual journey he’d begun years before. In the New York Jewish community, ben-Chaim was an outlier: he’s Black, gay, intersex, HIV-positive, and Midwestern. He’d had his conversion officiated by the most traditionalist, Orthodox court of rabbis he could find, because he wanted to make sure no one could question it. “I needed it to be the gold standard,” he says.
He also made sure the rabbis knew he was gay. “I wanted them to convert me,” he says. “If they didn’t know I was gay, they would be converting someone I was not.”
It was only his intersex status, though, that gave the rabbinical court pause. “They wanted to know if I’d ever experienced a period, and I said, ‘Not that I know of.’”
After his conversion, he took a new name: Zakai, which means “pure,” and ben-Chaim, which means “the son of life.”
It wasn’t easy to date as a gay Orthodox Jew, never mind the rest of it. But he saw that Buchler was wearing a yarmulke in his profile picture, and messaged him. It was a Friday. Buchler messaged back. “He said, ‘Let’s get together, it’s Shabbat,” ben-Chaim recalls.
There was a tree in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow where a group of gay Orthodox men gathered regularly, and ben-Chaim arranged to meet Buchler there.
“We talked for two and a half hours,” he says. “And we were just together after that.”
Ben-Chaim did move to Israel soon afterward, and Buchler came to visit him three times over the course of a year. In January 2017, Buchler flew to Israel to stay. They both became Israeli citizens, but they kept Buchler’s Manhattan apartment so they could visit his mother, who was in her nineties. They were married in Manhattan, too — though they preferred to call it a commitment ceremony — at the B’Nai Jeshurun Synagogue on the Upper West Side.
“We respected each other enough not to finish each other’s sentences,” ben-Chaim says. He loved Buchler’s restless, inventive mind: Once, they were discussing the scientific evidence for the age of the universe versus the Orthodox teaching that creation is only about 5,700 years old. Buchler solved the problem.
“His argument was so brilliant and simple,” ben-Chaim says. “He said, ‘So you believe God could do anything — why couldn't God have created a world 5,700 years ago that was 7 billion years old?’ He had a way of turning life on its ear and being willing to ask the questions, and he loved investigating the answers.”
They wanted to have children and began the process through surrogacy.
“We found out he had cancer shortly after we created the embryos,” ben-Chaim says.
Buchler died in ben-Chaim’s arms a year later, on July 16, 2019, two months before their daughter’s birth.
In February 2020, Buchler’s mother also died. Buchler’s and ben-Chaim’s daughter was named in her estate, but legal trouble developed over her inheritance, ben-Chaim says. He was dealing with lawyers, caring for an infant, trying to manage his HIV in the U.S. (where he didn’t have healthcare), and attempting to figure out how to get his child a passport so he could go back to Israel. He wasn’t concentrating on the future of TropeTrainer.
I ask him if Buchler had made provisions for the software before his death. His answers are contradictory.
He says, “I was coming up with all these plans, and he was willing to entertain them as he got sick. He wanted TropeTrainer to be a repository of information for people, but in the end he ran out of time.”
He says, “My understanding of what Tom wanted to do with TropeTrainer was that he wanted to end it. But I would have been willing to move it forward, as long as it was maintained well. I wouldn’t hand it off to just another human being anyway — it would go to an organization that could actually build it and grow it.”
He says, “I didn’t want to be a part of TropeTrainer. It was his baby, his vision. A lot of his notes were written in Krypton — I just called it Krypton, these cryptic notes I can’t decipher. He never showed me how to do the updates.”
I ask him what had happened to Buchler’s computer, the one with the source code on it.
He isn’t sure. At least one of his computers had been donated to an Israeli family in need.
“Probably gone at this point,” he says.
“In the Jewish tradition, one is not allowed to discard a book or other printed material that includes the Hebrew name of God,” writes the rabbi, technologist, and Tufts University professor Jeffrey Summit in his book Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Biblical Chant in Contemporary Judaism.
“When such books become too worn to use, one is obligated to place them in a genizah, a special holding room until they are accorded the honor of being buried in a Jewish cemetery,” he continues. “But do the same feelings of sanctity apply to a computer screen?”
It’s hard to know how to memorialize a piece of software. After Buchler died, TropeTrainer died too — gradually, and in pieces.
On Jan. 15, 2020 — almost six months to the day after Buchler’s death — Microsoft stopped supporting Windows 7. A wave of cantors and rabbis were forced to finally update their operating systems, only to discover that their version of TropeTrainer wouldn’t run. In October 2020, the same thing happened for Mac users upgrading to Catalina. In both cases, there was no updated software to download, because the Kinnor website had shut down.
“There’s no copyright issue, because we’re not using any of [Buchler’s] code.”
Other users found their software froze immediately upon opening: It would launch, look online for updates, and then spin uselessly, reaching out for a server that was no longer there.
The iOS version remained available in the Apple store for a while longer. Rabbi Zucker tells me he’d had one of his bar mitzvah students download the mobile app before it disappeared, but then the boy dropped his iPhone into a swimming pool, and that was that.
Sid Wharton’s hard drive failed in spring 2021, taking his full version of TropeTrainer with it. He still has the mobile version on his iPad, but that version doesn’t have all the same features.
I asked if it was emotionally difficult to lose the software. He replies, “Yes.” I ask him how. There is a long pause.
He tells me there was a feature Buchler had added just for him — the ability to copy and paste into a word-processing program. Every time he used it, it was a little gift from his friend.
That’s gone now.
The last time he talked on the phone with Buchler, it was awkward, he says, because they both knew they probably wouldn’t speak to each other again. “I don’t remember the conversation, but at the end of it I whispered, ‘I love you,’” Wharton says. “My feelings for him were that deep.”
There is at least one effort underway to resurrect, or at least replace, TropeTrainer. In 2021, a cantor named Daniel Friedman in Los Angeles founded a company named Hazzan Solutions and launched what he describes as a replacement for TropeTrainer, which he calls TropeTrainer™.
Although Buchler’s old website stated “TropeTrainer(tm) and the Kinnor Logo are trademarks of Kinnor Software Inc.,” and although Buchler’s will left his intellectual property to his husband, it appears Buchler never federally registered the trademark. Friedman did, however, in 2021.
As for the application itself: “There’s no copyright issue,” Friedman tells me, “because we’re not using any of [Buchler’s] code.”
The new TropeTrainer™ is a subscription-based web application. Friedman explains that he had previously developed another web application, but says he can’t tell me what the app was called because of ongoing legal issues.
“When Tom passed and the program passed, there were so many of us who relied on it so much in our everyday work,” says Friedman, who didn’t know Buchler. “It’s like a partner you see every day and you engage with that person every day. It’s like losing someone that you’re close to. I think that’s how we all felt.”
Friedman says he plans to incorporate MP3s of cantors singing various nusachs. The audio feature is listed on the site as “coming soon.” At the moment, TropeTrainer™ has no voice.
“The challenge is, people have an expectation for this program to work really well and do what it did before and more,” Friedman says. “The daunting task is honoring that.”
But he is confident: “Once we crack the algorithms and the coding that we need to get to — that we’re close on — once you crack it, it’s like dominos, it just lays itself down.”
Stacy Schnee tells me she’d been contacted by Hazzan Solutions’ programmer, who asked if she could email him her copy of Buchler’s DECtalk voice engine. She declined.
“Oh yeah, I’ll just send you an email of the four million lines of code,” she says sarcastically. Even if that were possible technically, she adds, it’s not her intellectual property to share.
I ask Schnee if Buchler’s source code could be reconstructed from a copy of the software.
Not exactly, she says. It might be possible to induce the machine code to dump out a database of every phoneme it had ever uttered — all the tiny pieces it had used to sing Armenian and Lithuanian and Egyptian trope — and then, if you were very patient and very skilled, you might be able to write code to piece them back together.
It could be done, she says. But it wouldn’t be quick or easy. And it wouldn’t be the same program Buchler wrote.
A few days after we speak, Schnee emails me. She’d found something in the depths of one of her many old computers: a WAV file, a 15-second snippet of a voice that came from no human throat, from no throat at all, singing sacred words in an eerie robot tenor. The sound of what was lost and would perhaps never come again. The voice of a ghost.
I press play.