Image courtesy Hans Speekenbrink via AllAboutJazz.com
Last night I took my family to see Pat Metheny and his Orchestrion live at the Anderson Performing Arts center in Binghamton, NY. Early this year I noted the introduction to the technology here and reviewed the CD here. When the concert tour was first announced, I was unsurprised that the nearest spots would be about four hours away from me (one thing I really miss about the Boston area!) So when a follow-up set of dates was announced in May that would bring Metheny within an hour … I grabbed tickets right away and wound up 4th row, dead center!
The concert was amazing, but my purpose here is not as much to do a concert review as it is to reflect on the amazing technology integration on display in a live musical setting.
Here is my synopsis … Music + Technology = Music++.
Oh, and amazing visual spectacle! The top image shows an older show of Orchestrion with all of the automated instruments shown, but what cannot be conveyed in an image is that each instrument has a small but bright blue LED that flashes when it is actuated, That turns the performance into an event that stimulates the eyes as well as the ears.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Pat Metheny has been saying in recent weeks that from his first concerts with the Orchestrion he got two sets of questions: the first is, ‘Pat, just exactly when did you lose your mind?’ The second is, ‘How does all of this work?’.
I was pretty clear in my review that I thought it was a pretty amazing integration of music and technology. Metheny has always been a big fan of technology, an early user of the Synclavier digital music system, the Roland GR300 guitar synthesizer, MIDI integration, whole-band real time digital interfaces, and on and on.
As as aside, he is not the only jazz musician with a technology bent, but unlike some he has always made technology subservient to the music. I recall seeing Al DiMeola live in the early 80’s when he got a Synclavier interfaced to a GR300 … and the concert felt more like ‘Hi, I’m Al, this is my cool new toy, now let’s have these guys play backing tracks for two hours while I show off some great new sounds!’.
But as Metheny said way back when he introduced the Orchestrion, it goes back to being a young kid and playing with his grandfather’s old player piano. He has always been fascinated with the integration of music and technology, and has always jumped at the chance to work with new technology. Heck, he modified his picking technique to work better with the hexophonic pickups of the GR-300!
So as he has mentioned in interviews and spoke about during the show, when he saw the Yamaha Disklavier back in the 80’s it wasn’t the utility that intrigued him … in fact, he says it is pretty much resigned to sitting in hotel lobby bars playing Satin Doll and Girl from Ipanema and has been from the start. However, what he immediately saw in the Disklavier was the fact that it allowed for automated playing of a mechanical instrument with dynamics for the first time using solenoids.
So why has it taken so long to go from the initial idea to the fully realized project? The march of technology, of course. I was using MIDI and Synclavier technology to create static compositions that could be recreated time and again back in the mid-80’s. But there were timing issues, bandwidth issues, stability and control issues and on and on. If you think about how problematic it was coordinating communications between digital instruments designed for the task … I can only imagine the problems working on digital-mechanical instrumentation control!
Anyway, before I delve further into the technology integration … back to the show. Because it didn’t start as a full-on techno-blast, believe it or not. Most of the stuff you see above was covered up, and I knew Metheny had done many alterations since the first set of shows and didn’t know if the instrumentation was scaled back.
He started off with an improvised piece on nylon string guitar. It was pretty obviously a warm-up number to get himself and the crowd working together, and while it was a solid effort it was a reminder to me that his musical ideas tend to be broader and harmonically stratified, so he has never aspired to or attained the solo guitar chops of someone like Joe Pass.
Then he moved to a steel-string acoustic with an obviously bizarre tuning scheme for another improv. This one had a nice opening structure, then started filling the chamber with resonant energy (the acoustics in the hall were superb) and then after some tangents returned to the original structures before finishing.
His next piece … well, it is another improvised piece, but it was with this piece that he electrified the crowd. It was his 42-string Pikasso custom guitar. I saw him use it in concert many years ago … but nothing like this. Here is a video of him with the 42-string Pikasso guitar.
I make a point of highlighting these early songs for two reasons. First off, in spite of all of the attention on the Orchestrion and of this technology Metheny is a guitarist first and foremost. Second, he is a brilliant musician and composer who musically and technically curious and restless. Alternate tunings and a variety of instruments allow him to expand his musical palette, and the 42-string guitar allows him to create the feeling of a larger string ensemble. As I said, his musical thoughts always tend towards larger structures, so the Pikasso is a great fit. Plus, as my kids mentioned, the virtuosic bombast of technical mastery on display … stunning!
His fourth song featured … yet another guitar. I had the feeling things were going to get moving now as this was the Yamaha PM-100 guitar with two large cables coming from it – audio and control system. And sure enough, quickly he started a rhythm with the finger-cymbals and then launched into a rousing version of Unity Village, a great composition from his 1975 debut recording as a leader. Similar to what he did on the original record, he established the ‘backing guitar track’ and then played melody on top of it. He did this with a sample & hold system that he had slaved and locked in rhythm with everything else. The technology separately is nothing new … but together?
Oh – during Unity Village one of the finger cymbals blew apart! Real life, people! Later in the show a technician spent some time fixing it up.
Then he launched into the Orchestrion Suite. As mentioned in the CD review, there are five compositions thematically linked and book-ended by the title track and Spirit in the Air. But in the performance he launched first with Expansion, which was just am amazing revelation. As the song began the back curtain went up, revealing rack after rack of instrumentation – much more than is shown in the picture above. Expansion has a very short rhythmic introduction and then launched into a high energy section involving the whole band. It was exciting to watch and listen – my wife tapped me to look at the boys – they were completely captivated, particularly my younger son who is quite the technology lover!
Let me try to run down some of the instrumentation: two pianos, electric bass, acoustic guitar, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone (yep, all three mallet instruments!), and an accordion (really!). There were also loads upon loads of drums, cymbals, and myriad percussion instruments including cymbals with sticks hitting different areas to produce different sounds similar to how a ‘real’ drummer would do it. The melodic instruments included a two sets of pneumatic linear instruments that sound somewhat like a basic synthesizer with heavy portamento, and massive array of tuned bottles, partly filled with fluid and using forced air to produce sounds.
And as I said, when these were triggered a blue light would flash, which produced an amazing visual effect in time with the music all over the stage!
Expansion was followed by Entry Point, Spirit in the Air and then the title track. It was during that sequence that some thoughts began creeping into my head. Metheny has always been a composer in the ‘modern jazz’ style, integrating plenty of through-composed elements alongside improvisation. But he never stays still, so even in group settings he is constantly tweaking compositions and changing up the structures of improvised sections. All of the songs from Orchestrion were essentially similar to the CD versions, yet each had been changed up in some way or other.
After that, Metheny spoke to the audience and brought forth the two questions I mentioned earlier. He stated that after concluding the Orchestrion Suite he was going to play an improvised piece that would make use of his entire Orchestrion and he hoped that it would show the audience how it all worked.
One thing I mentioned in my CD review was that it was hard to really place the technology, that “despite all of the technical stuff going on, this ends up sounding largely like just a great collection of Metheny compositions.” And with the live show, although I was pretty certain I saw him triggering some changes live on stage, acting like he was interacting with the other ‘musicians’, over the course of the suite things felt largely like he was playing with a static musical backdrop. During Spirit in the Air in particular there was a point where I felt that a ‘real’ band could have followed Pat in a entirely different direction, whereas the Orchestrion could only do what it was programmed to do.
But one cool thing about the difference between a fully digital instrumentation setup and a system where digital triggers actuate physical switches which play instruments … is the ‘humanity’, ironic as it sounds. Humans have imperfect timing that ebbs and flows, so having a piano miss a cue by a half-beat felt like a natural mistake, having a drum hit too loud felt ‘honest’, and all of the other things going on just contributed to an organic feel for this technology.
Before he got back to the main show he brought out his first hybrid instrument: an acoustic guitar with a second set of strings running up and down across the tone chamber, with a number of hammers inside that he could control using foot-pedals and switches. He had developed this with his guitar technician, saying ‘all I do with my feet is turn effects on and off … why can’t I make MUSIC with them!’. It was a fun piece that showed a glimpse at how Metheny looks at the juxtaposition of music and technology.
Metheny had mentioned that the improvised piece would likely veer towards using themes and elements from some of his favorite Ornette Coleman songs, and I was thrilled to hear stuff from ‘Shape of Jazz to Come’, ‘Science Fiction’, ‘Broken Shadows’, ‘In All Languages’ and more. But the best part wasn’t just the great themes he worked with, but the fact that he constructed totally improvised pieces using the entire instrumentation available.
He ‘played’ the ENTIRE Orchestrion live! It was really at this point that it sunk in – this isn’t just a novelty or pet project … this is a massive musical undertaking by a genius trying to bring his musical-technical vision to life! And it worked!
On the floor he had a mass array of pedals and switches, and on his guitar he had controls linked to a multi-function switch and rotary knobs along with the volume control. It was hard to figure out exactly how it all worked – I was also trying to savor every note he played – but here is what I surmised: certain switch positions would call up certain banks of instruments, and then depending on the dynamics of his playing and which string he plucked, there would be a different instrumental response from around the instruments.
Some of this is straight-forward: on the piano, bass, or mallet instruments, notes translate directly. But on the percussion instruments it was very different and somewhat harder to follow. As I mentioned earlier he was also making use of a fairly elaborate sample and hold system that allowed him to multi-track in different parts of the Orchestrion to play repeating structures. But they didn’t need to occupy the same time space – you might have one instrument with a 24-bar repeating structure and another with three different 8 bar segments. And it wasn’t sampling the audio like a typical delay module – it was pulling the triggering data! This meant that because of the inherent variability of triggers, responses and instrument reactions, the same line again and again sounded slightly different each time!
After the crowd went crazy and gave an ovation at the end of that spectacle, he played a piece I recognized but couldn’t place … I later discovered it was from the 1992 recording Secret Story when listening on the ride home. After watching him control the Orchestrion fully improvised, I had a much better eye for what was pre-programmed and what was changed up live.
His final piece was truly the pinnacle of the night: a fully realized spontaneous composition utilizing the entire Orchestrion. He laid down a basic beat, then a guitar track to set the harmony, then a bass line, then he suddenly started jamming to it for a few rounds and then stopped it, created a new backing, new guitar and bass, added piano, mallets, drums, percussion and on and on. The he stopped and returned to the first section, dumped the initial bass line and recorded a new one, filled that section out … and then created a third one! He took a breath for a few seconds as the first section played and then started in on a fully realized version of the melody he was noodling around with while improvising! His guitar tech had wheeled out the GR-300 and suddenly he was full-on blasting out an over-the-top synth guitar solo on top of a three section full Orchestrion piece that had the crown completely mesmerized. There was an encore, also from Secret Story … but that is besides the point.
Earlier I had called the music ‘organic’, which is really ironic considering it is all just a bunch of digitally triggered devices. Metheny had really wanted the crowd to ‘get it’, not to just see it as a gimmick, or congratulate him on creating perhaps the most complex music-technology system ever. And with that final improvised composition I think there was little doubt left that he had built an amazing musical instrument. By combining pre-programmed and freely adaptable elements, by constructing an elaborate control system that allowed him to ultimately take the music wherever he wanted to go within certain constraints, he had taken the combination of music and technology and gone to a higher level.
We talked about the concert on the way home and at breakfast the next morning. We all loved the show, the spectacle and the display of technology. But we all agreed that while the technology was impressive, it was they way that the music transcended the technology that made it such a special event. Also, as musicians my older son (tuba) said and younger son (piano & violin) agreed – when Metheny played the guitar her couldn’t decide if he wanted to lock himself in his room and practice non-stop, or put away the instrument forever and just cry!
I’ll close with another video. This one is admittedly more or less a commercial for the Bose L1 sound system … but (a) it shows loads of on-stage video from earlier Orchestrion shows and (b) after sitting front and center at the show the impact of those discrete elements in providing a positional presence is undeniable. Enjoy!