Saturday, May 01, 2010

StLJN Saturday Video Showcase:
Investigating the Orchestrion



Guitarist Pat Metheny's Orchestrion tour comes to St. Louis next Saturday, May 8 for a concert at the Touhill Performing Arts Center, and though StLJN has been following related news for a while, today we've got some video clips that offer a closer look at Metheny and his electromechanical accompanist.

The notion of a machine that plays music and is designed to sound like an orchestra or band has been around since the 19th century, and various types of coin-operated orchestrions (often referred to as "nickelodeons" since it took five cents to play one) once were relatively commonplace in theaters, arcades and other places of amusement and entertainment in the USA and Europe. You can see pictures and hear audio files of some examples at the website of the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association.

As recounted in one of a series of videos the guitarist has made about the Orchestrion project, Metheny's interest in mechanically assisted musical performance dates back to a childhood fascination with his grandfather's player piano. To build the systems used on the Orchestrion album and tour, Metheny enlisted the help of a number of artists and technologists, including a group called LEMUR, the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, who have been creating robotic musical instruments since 2000. LEMUR developed gear for Metheny that includes bass, pianos, percussion, marimbas, robotic slide guitars, and a cabinet of tuned bottles, all driven by custom software and solenoid switches and controlled by Metheny's guitar and foot pedals.

Today's first two videos feature a couple of earlier LEMUR creations, and provide a close-up look at some the individual components in action. Up top, you'll see an ensemble of percussion instruments that was created for an installation in 2006 at the Beall Center for Art & Technology at the University of California-Irvine. It's a relatively short, simple piece generated by a computer algorithm, but there are some good views of the various devices used to actuate the different instruments. Down below, you can see and hear an earlier version of one of LEMUR's robo-guitars, playing an original piece with an attack and timbre that evoke both slide guitar and synthesizer.

Below that, you can see a demo by RagtimeWest, one of the other groups of roboticists who worked on the project, showing an ensemble of computer- and solenoid-controlled instruments playing a version of "Take Five." While the musical result in this case is more E-Z listening than jazz, one can't help but admire the cleverness of the technology involved, and wonder about about its potential in the hands of a master musician like Pat Metheny.

And so, our final two videos show Metheny and the Orchestrion in concert in Vienna, Austria, during the first part of his tour earlier this year, performing "Expansions" and "Antonia." Both clips were shot by an audience member with a handheld camera, and so the audio and video aren't quite up to broadcast standard. However, the quality is sufficient to give a pretty good idea of what's going on, and to these ears, it sounds like Metheny has managed successfully to get the machines to reflect his musical personality in real time as well as in the recording studio. Robots or not, it still sounds like Pat Metheny, and that's no small feat considering the various challenges involved. To see some reviews of other recent shows from Metheny's Orchestrion tour, go here.

(Edited 5/3/10 to fix a typo.)







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