All posts for the month February, 2010

Pat Metheny Orchestrion, originally uploaded by lemon.grass.

I am fairly hooked on Pat Metheny’s music, so I was really looking forward to seeing him live with Orchestrion at the Barbican Centre last night.  The atmosphere was good, and I had one of the best seats in the house, 7 rows back and right in the centre of the stalls.  The technology is fascinating – lots of solenoids controlling mainly acoustic instruments and some electric guitars.  He can control the whole setup from his guitar in almost real time.  It’s a great setup.  OK, so the technology let him down last night near the end of the concert, and his closing number had to be cancelled; that didn’t matter as we were treated to some more familiar pieces instead.  The trouble is that the automated setup has some serious musical limitations which in the end left me feeling that it was frankly boring.  Pat’s act used the orchestrion in two distinct modes: pre-programmed, and live.  In the pre-programmed mode, computers had previously recorded Pat’s playing of the orchestrion, and on stage he soloed as it accompanied.  In the live mode, the automated instruments sounded in response to Pat’s playing, detecting the tones of the notes and playing them on the many percussion and strung instruments in the ensemble.

Player pianos are fascinating devices, as Pat points out, and one can watch them for ages.  But frankly one doesn’t look to them to produce inspiring performances.  What makes an inspiring performance on stage?  The interplay between the players; the way they react to one another and inspire each other to go a bit further; the feeling that we, as members of the audience, are privy to the excitement which flows between the performers.  All that is lost with a pseudo-solo performance like this, and worse, the automaton doesn’t read and react to timing and mood changes in the live performance.  When Pat starts a soulful solo, and then the orchestrion comes in, it often comes in at the wrong speed.  A live backing group would be listening to the soloist and timing their entrance to match his tempo.  The opposite problem occurs when Pat leads the performance in the live mode.  The detection of which notes are playing and the reaction time of the mechanics leads to a noticable lag between the soloist’s performance and the accompaniment.  I did become use to this delay after a while, but it is a serious limitation, compared with multiple performers playing together.

Overall, I found the Orchestrion experience flat and somewhat disappointing.  As he freely admits, it’s an experiment, and he’s feeling his way. The most interesting part of the evening was listening to him talking about how it worked, and demonstrating the machine. He has a very pleasant manner and comes across well. I hope I get the chance to see him performing live with live performers soon, so that I can experience the real music.

Ten or 15 years ago when I used to visit the National Railway Museum in York very often, I was very excited about the realtime railway signalling display they had installed on a balcony overlooking the East Coast Main Line which runs past the musuem.  Could this really be live, I wondered?  And yes, it was.  Five screens showing real time train movements along the lines from north of Doncaster to Northallerton in Yorkshire.  I spent hours looking over the displays and learning how everything worked.  It was a real treat for a signalling enthusiast.  Many lunchbreaks I spent there, after eating my lunch at the rather nice cafe (at which I receive a discount of 36.25% for being a member of the museum’s Friends).  After a while I had picked up enough information, from watching the displays and from talking to more knowledgable visitors, to be able to explain the display to other visitors, and I would also give short talks to groups of schoolchildren as they visited the museum.

There were problems, however.  The analogue monitors were subject to disturbance from the electrical interference generated by powerful electric locomotives as they drew power from the overhead lines.  This would scramble the displays for a minute or so as trains left the station travelling north towards Newcastle.  Over time the displays themselves became tired and began to fail, and it proved too difficult for the museum to arrange for them to be repaired.  Such systems are built by disparate consortia and put into museums as a result of goodwill and negotiation.  As people move on and firms are taken over or close down, the network of contacts which installed the displays can disperse.  First, the departures board stopped working, and then one monitor after another failed and was switched off.  I recall the day when I went to the museum to see a notice declaring that the display was to be removed; I was very sad.  This became one reason why I no longer regularly visited the museum.

Earlier this week however I visited once again to have lunch, and went up to the gallery to see what was going on in the workshops.  Imagine my surprise and joy to see that the live display had been modernised and re-presented, with five new flat-screen displays offering a much improved view of ECML operations.  I was thrilled.  The NRM had pulled a rabbit out of the hat.  My future visits to the NRM will be much happier ones.  Thanks, NRM!


NRM IECC display – overview.

NRM IECC Display – North of Doncaster.