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by on May.02, 2010, under Concerts, Events, Technology

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Photo Credit: Jimmy Katz

Photo Credit: Jimmy Katz

The evening of May 1st I experienced the Orchestrion Project, conceived and directed by Pat Metheny at The Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver. I obeyed the request not to take photos or make recordings, so I will offer the readily available ubiquitous You Tube examples and links to official sites where some images are available. Pat Metheny has provided some photos by Jimmy Katz on his site (left). The first part of this post is a comment on the memorable guitar collection and the second part on the automated Orchestrion.

Pat Metheney’s Guitars

Pat Metheny is one of the world’s most skilled guitar players and it was a pleasure to hear him stretch out. I loved the guitar collection that was on display and it was heartbreaking to see two different guitars fall off the stands on to the stage at different times  during the show. The guitar tech gave a feeling like Japanese Bunraku, as the ever present controller of the brightly coloured puppets. He acted as a puppet master to the guitars because as the guitar tech he controlled the appearance and condition of each guitar presented placeing them quietly in the background. He was always present, a shadow behind the guitarist. A master manipulator who did not take a bow or receive performer credit, but who performed the essential dance of guitar control for the many instruments that were played. On several websites Carolyn Chrzan is credited as being guitar tech, but this is unofficial information for this show.

The show opened with a solo piece on nylon string guitar and I noticed that Pat really seems to like that percussive edge that comes from playing nylon with a pick. It is an aggressive sound for the instrument and I can understand the choice. I know I will not be following this example because of my studies with Michael Strutt, I would not be able to concentrate on my playing because echoes of his instructions for approaching the instrument would be louder in my head than the music. This is my conditioning, as many fine guitarists use a pick on nylon — even Chet Atkins used a thumbpick to maintain his usual famous style — even though the nylon string is a different instrument historically than the steel string. Finger style picking soon replaced the pick and I was able to hear the full beauty of the instrument shine through. I assume this was also a Linda Manzer guitar, although I don’t know for sure. It was a fine example of the craft of guitar making and was used extensively thoughout the show.

The signature Ibanez soon replaced the acoustic and we were treated to some very fine jazz/fusion work with the speed and precision the Metheny is deservedly famous for. A Master Class in technique and melodic styling combined with tasty chords. This was the most used guitar for improvised playing and seemed to be most comfortable for Pat to get his sound.

The multi-neck Linda Manzer “Pikasso” guitar was used for one piece and I could finally see the point. This strange instrument has multiple necks and sympathetic strings that offer different tonal possibilities. In performance, Mr. Metheny tuned all of the strings, except the regular guitar neck, to open chords with extended harmonies. The regular guitar neck was put through an octavider or a bass synth to create bass tones at least an octave below the usual tuning. The ability to play bass lines and strum huge open extended harmonies gave a pianistic quality that was overlaid with picked melodic lines. More than an interesting visual item for a collector, this was a viable instrument with a unique sound that extended a guitarist’s ability to play multiple timbres and parts simultaneously.

Another unique guitar contained automation that allowed foot pedal control of strumming somehow. Pat placed his feet on two volume pedals and was able to atomate a second guitar part, while he played the first. I would really like to see this up close to understand the concept. The guitar body was considerably larger than a stock guitar and I suspect some control machinery was inside. The two parts were explored during one piece after Pat was gracious enough to explain a bit about the process.

It is obvious that Pat Metheny loves to play with technology and he deserves strong praise for taking a chance and touring with the Orchestrion. Of course, much of the audience would have gladly attended a solo concert of the guitar legend, but this event pushed boundaries for much of the audience.

The other guitar I noted was a synth that seemed to be similar to my old Ibanez X-ing guitar (circa 1986) with multiple controls on the body. I always found that guitar heavy and awkward to play, but this was a Les Paul shape that seemed updated. The Ibanez used Roland guitar synth technology that I know Metheny has used in the past, but I have recently been using a Godin that tracks much better and is more fun to play.  This mystery guitar I remain curious about as it was the main controller for feeding data into the Orchestrion during the show.

The Orchestrion

Here is the Official Orchestrion site with all of the You Tube Video interviews and information from Pat Metheny.

CD cover

This post is naked without photos so I post the CD cover and  embed the EPK here.

If Pat had come on stage and just played the samples with his MIDI guitar, it would have sounded very similar, but the audience response would have been very different. Mr. Metheny is facing the same problem that I have been talking about with my instrument development project. If  the audience does not know how the sound is being produced, they do not connect the player with the sound being played, so the intention is not conveyed even though they hear the sound. Gesture is very important to focus attention and seeming the stick hit the drum may seem simplistic, but it is effective.

To physically carry all of this equipment, set it up and troubleshoot the connections is a huge task. Racks of fragile, glass bottles; filled with measured amounts of liquid for tuning purposes, are not easy to transport! This was a beautiful addition — an automated jug band — oops I mean, “bottle ensemble” built by the Peterson Company in Chicago. These two racks of tuned bottles were blown by a machine (similar to a human blowing over the top of a bottle) to activate a sound similar to a pipe organ, but with a softer, chimey timbre.

My main interest was in Pat’s TWO Disklaviers. The studio that I work in as mastering engineer and artist,Waterlou Studios, has a 7 foot Disklavier and I had despaired of ever running MIDI in or out of it due to latency issues. The piano works really well to control the internal sounds and records every gesture and dynamic of a performance, including pedals. It will play back any performance by itself perfectly, BUT if I try to use it as a controller or feed MIDI information into it in real time, the latency is almost a second.

Absolutely unusable latency, but here was Pat, and he can play that guitar with amazing speed, feeding lines into a Disklavier that jumped to attention and played back in real time!!!!

. . . And there are several Disklaviers involved in this project. Yamaha has been incredibly supportive of the project and has provided me with an instrument for the recording that’s beautiful, way better than my at-home model. And their technology is sort of the standard in a way that I’m measuring everything else to.

Waterlou Studios will be investigating this to see if there is a way of upgrading the current instrument. I really love the piano part of this Yamaha, so I do not want to replace it. The bass is the best I have heard in a recording studio in Vancouver and the sustain has surprised more than one recording artist. I can be eloquent about this piano because I have recorded it so much with such great results.  Paul Plimley knows pianos and he selected this one after trying every expensive piano in Vancouver for over a year. The electronics work perfectly inside the unit, it is a communications upgrade that is required.

The other automated  components that were essential to the performance was the bass and mallet instruments. Several constructions, similar to ones I have seen Trimpin constructing in his studio for an installation, played bass and operated the mallets. It is impossible for me to talk about automated instruments without mentioning my friend Trimpin, he is a legend in the field and worked with Colin Nancarrow. He is best known locally for creating IF VI WAS IX: Roots and Branches, the sculpture of guitars that plays (and self-tunes) in the lobby of the Experience Music Museum in Seattle.

At the Rambling Bay movie, I remember Charlie Hayden joking that he offered to be a robot to play with Pat in this ensemble. That is quite a compliment to Metheny’s musicianship to have such a great talent wanting to play and I missed the tonal variation and sensitivity of Charlie Hayden’s energy in supporting the guitaristic flights of fancy.

The percussion instruments required most of the room on stage and I really felt that if any percussionist Pat hired to play the gig overplayed to this degree, they would be fired on the spot. The box of tuned jingles was used as a metronome several times and percussion instruments that would normally be occasional accents in a quiet moment or a steady, supportive pulse were used as sporadic accents. As a percussionist, I usually play counterpoint or a pulse and only in selected sections emphasize certain areas with doubling. The density of percussion sometimes created a situation where the accents could not he heard, although you could see the instrument moving,  because so much percussion was going on in general. Perhaps some volume differences or panning could have separated out the component parts to make everything more audible.

The drums were basic, a bass kick drum, toms, snare, hats and cymbals and the occasional electronic addition.  The cymbals tended to wash across the sonic landscape and the patterns tended to be repetative, without enough human sensitivity and dynamics and could have been produced by a good sampling drum machine.

The mallet instruments were mostly doubling or looping Pat’s lines and added to a dense texture that was further complicated by two pianos. I know this is Mr. Metheney’s first major foray into loop based composition and I was drawn to offer my services as a real-time editor and arranger of these types of materials. He really has some great ideas melodically and his harmonic language is more advanced than mine on the guitar. He has inspired me to practice for speed again, as he plays quickly to deliver a message, not just to babble unintelligibly.

This concert was one of the most expensive I will attend this year and 100% worth it. I really learned from Pat Metheny’s work on guitar and it was inspiring to see the development of the Orchestrion. The responsive Disklavier was a revelation and I am glad that Pat is bringing this technology out to popularize with audiences. His explanation was very helpful to the general public and he has generously provided a lot of information on his website.  The show is enjoyable for the Pat Metheny fans among us who love to see great guitar work and for those curious about the Orchestrion, Pat’s commissioned developments in automated music making machines.

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