Metheny Mécanique and Karaoke Koncerts

What’s the difference between a concert and Karaoke?

The specter of plug ‘n’ play concerts has reared its pre-wired head again. I’ve been confronted with another spate of contrasting concerts.  On the one hand, there’s music that’s played live and in the moment and on the other, music that’s been packaged and frozen.   In the latter case, a live performance consists of defrosting the material while a lone musician solos  over the top.  This is especially hard for me to confront because most of that music is the stuff I love and have supported for over 35 years.

Pat Metheny & Orchestrion

Many electronic concerts have become little more than karaoke. A musician walks on stage, sits in front of one or two laptops, maybe a keyboard, hits start and spends most of the concert staring at a computer screen watching his composition slide by. Occasionally he might play some synth pads or even a solo line, but by and large, it’s all as fresh as a Swanson TV dinner.

Proponents of laptop performances will argue that with programs like Ableton Live, they can interact and change the music in real time. And I have seen this happen. Ulrich Schnauss gave a musically remarkable performance in the Echoes Living Room and at World Cafe Live a couple of years ago. His concert versions of music from Goodbye were radically different from the album. Yet even throughout this performance, I kept thinking, “Man, this would be so much more powerful if he had a couple of guitarists, keyboard player, bassist and drums.”  Canned music will never have the impact of a true live performance.    That was brought home by four  recent concerts.

Robert Rich @ Echoes

Both Spyra and Robert Rich recently played performances in Philadelphia including live Echoes sessions. I’ve been singing the praises of Robert Rich for a long time now. His album Ylang was an Echoes CD of the Month. But in concert, Rich is essentially doing a Music Minus One set, playing flutes and lap steel guitar over his elaborate, but completely pre-programmed backing tracks.

Spyra @ Echoes

At least Rich  brings along some real synthesizers that are triggered.  Wolfram Spyra pretty much left  his set to a couple of Mac computers and a couple of keyboards over which he noodled solos.    Bass lines pound, drums ricochet, chords lays down heavenly pathways and synthesizers shoot melodies off the rafters of St. Mary’s Church at The Gatherings,  but the only musician on stage stares mutely at a computer screen.

Artists like this make a pretense of live performance, but it’s barely a step above playing a CD on stage.   JJ, a band from Europe doesn’t even make that pretense.  On their CD, No. 3, they conjure up  a haunting brand of electronica with Elin Kastlander‘s smokey alto voice intoning echoes from the abyss.  In concert they sound just like their CD because the only thing live is Kastlander, who stood stoically still,  her thick blonde hair cascading over her shoulders, while she sang in front of their full backing tracks.  A couple of times, Joakim Benon, (I think), would come on stage, strum a guitar aimlessly and hug Kastlander before exiting. It was creepy, especially when the Enyaesque choirs of “Let Go” came forth, but there was only Eastlander, barely moving her lips.   There were times I thought she might be lip-syncing. When did alt-rock concerts become a Solid Gold performance? If you’re gonna do that, at least bring on the dancers.

I don’t know JJ’s story, but Sprya and Robert Rich argue that their music is too complex for one person to play live and that it’s not financially viable to bring a band.   I would argue that your live music should be scaled to what you’re capable of live.  If that means a solo set, then scale it to what you can actually play live without backing.    If you really need a band but you’re not committed enough to go to the expense or find like-minded players willing to suffer for your art, ,  then perhaps you shouldn’t be playing live concerts at all. Hundreds of rock groups scuffle through tiny clubs to make their art.   How is it different for these electronic acts?    A recording is one thing, a live performance is something else entirely.

Metheny's Orchestrion

Which brings me to Pat Metheny. He’s built his reputation on live performances presented in myriad permutations, the most popular being the Pat Metheny Group.    For this past year he’s been touring his Orchestrion concert. The Orchestrion is a mechanical orchestra with an exploded drum kit, pianos, vibes, marimba, glockenspiel, electric bass, robot guitars, bottle organs and more. Metheny can control much of this monster with his guitar, doubling lines on vibes and marimba, setting tempos on percussion and sometimes just playing piano with his guitar.  (Hear Metheny talk about the Orchestrion here.)

But the arrangements of the “Orchestrion Suite” are complex, as complex as the music on his previous Pat Metheny Group album, The Way Up and there is no way he can do that live no matter how fast he can trigger the Orchestrion instruments.    Instead, computers had the launch codes for much of the music.   What was a little deceptive was an improvisation the guitarist played to end the show before encores. He said it was a demonstration of how the system works. He played a guitar riff, looped it, played another riff and looped that in sync and started adding sounds from his orchestrion that were clearly triggered by his guitar.  The improvised work built up to a glorious climax with Metheny playing a classic guitar synth solo at the end.

The thing is, that’s not what he was doing during the rest of the concert. There was no live looping. The five compositions played from the Orchestrion album  were obviously pre-programmed arrangements and the only improvisation was in Metheny’s guitar solos. Those guitar solos were great and beyond the ken of most electronic musicians to match, but much of the rest was canned, albeit, in elaborate if not bizarre fashion with his stage-filling Orchestrion beast.

The lines of live vs pre-programmed are less clear with Pat Metheny.  The Orchestrion is a conceptual art project as much as a music performance.  He’s not trying to replicate a band.   It’s an amazing feat of technology and tenacity, and Metheny made it all appear effortless, but ultimately, there was something missing from the stage, which needed either 10 Pat Methenys or ten other musicians to effect his vision.

Jimmy Lavalle of Album Leaf @ Echoes

These concerts contrasted sharply with two other recent shows, The Album Leaf and Jonsi. Both shows were full of live musicians, and even though there was little improvisation, the performances were in the moment, energized by the mood on stage and the audiences.   The Jonsi show at the Electric Factory was transcendent, visually and musically.  The Sigur Ros singer/guitarist created a theatrical work that was  meticulously choreographed,  yet ragingly intense.    The Album Leaf gave a powerhouse show in the sweltering heat of the First Unitarian Church and came into the Echoes living room the next day, stripped down their live set-up to the basics, and still sounded amazing. Yes, they do use some glitch backing tracks, but by and large, it’s six musicians, in communion. It’s what happens when real musicians are playing live.

Music isn’t pure.  Technology pushes limits and especially with DJ and dance culture,  performance concepts that were taboo have fallen.  I don’t think there’s a line to be drawn, but I think I know when it’s been crossed.  So let me ask again:  What’s the difference between a concert and karaoke?

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

  22 comments for “Metheny Mécanique and Karaoke Koncerts

  1. Thanks Justin, but to be clear, Metheny’s weren’t actually backing tracks. Those instruments on stage were playing all the music live. But they were triggered by computer, not Metheny’s guitar, much of the time.

  2. This is one of a few reasons Hungry Lucy isn’t performing any more. While many of our audience were, honestly, thrilled just to hear Christa sing live, we never felt like a real band.

    Over the years, several people accused me of “cheating” for using backing tracks. My argument was always that we can’t do everything live. As time passed, though, I really began to feel like I was cheating as well. When we’ve performed with just a piano (well electric piano) and vocals… it’s felt like so much more than a “full” show.

    I think we’ll just stick to making recordings and perhaps a few stripped down performances in future.

  3. Very insightful. I could not agree more with everything you said, particularly concerning Pat Metheny. How dishonest is that to play to backing tracks the whole time, only to encore with a demonstration on how you “did it all” live and by yourself? I gig out often with a loop station, and the arrangements can get really epic, but I don’t bring a single backing track with me. You obviously know and appreciate the difference, John, but when I sweating my balls off, dancing around tapping buttons with my feet while playing the guitar, singing, playing keyboards and thinking 4 steps ahead, I wonder how many people out there listening really get it. Improvisation, to me, is the very heart of live music. Check out David Gilmour’s (2002, I think?) DVD at The Royal Albert Hall. THAT is what live music is, to me. Thanks again for a great blog!

  4. Hands down, John, I put my money on the communion of living musicians playing each and every note. I, myself, won’t even “loop”.

    I’d draw the comparison of a knowledgeable passionate speaker versus a teleprompter reader issuing a press release. The former has charismatic appeal.

  5. well first of all what is wrong with using cubase, ableton live, cakewalk or hardware sequencers. 😉
    without those hardware sequencers we would not have artists like Schulze or Tangerine Dream.
    But on the other hand, I prefer playing everything unprepared. total improvisation……

    • Nothing wrong with those things and in a recording situation, they are great IMHO. My question is using them in a live performance situation. I’ve never seen Klaus live, but Tangerine Dream’s performances have been freeze-dried since the late 1980s.

  6. This is why I’ve said that if you go to see a live performance by an ambient artist, go with your eyes closed. You won’t be missing much…

  7. Laptop performances are the only way for most electronic musicians to viably play gigs. If music was my primary source of income, I would be trying to play tons of laptop gigs. The majority of the audience doesn’t care how the music is delivered – just as long they can share the experience with other people. So while some passionate music fans may be dissatisfied with the laptop experience, if you can draw an audience and have them enjoy being at the show, then its falls in the bucket of “you can’t please everyone”.

    Ironically, I fall in the category of passionate music fan and really dislike seeing laptop bands. This is the reason why I rarely gig. I love live music, and know the joy of playing in a band.

    • The majority of the audience doesn’t care how the music is delivered – just as long they can share the experience with other people.

      There’s a lot to be said for that perspective. But I often used the cliched analogy that you think a McDonald’s Hamburger is good until you have a filet mignon. Although in your case James, I guess the analogy would be Cheese curl to a slice of Brie?

  8. I was at first worried that Pat’s Orchestrion was an alternative for real people to interact with. When I saw him with the instrument I realized it was a real FANCY ”guitar”. A solo instrument. Very fun and interesting.

  9. I see you are broadcasting Robert Rich’s Echos session that you mentioned in this article. Perhaps in honor of this you can change the name of your show to “Echos Minus One.” 😀

  10. I am amazed John is even complaining about this. EM has always been accused of cheating. From the 1950s till today, the reaction has always been that machines helping a humans make music is not not valid art. Seriously, you guys have lost the notion of what electronic music is all about: Innovation and research in sonic arts. EM is not and has never been a visual art. Listen to what people are doing. Who cares if its pre-recorded as long as its good. Concerts are for people to get together, network and interact. They are a by-product of the music. Not the genesis. So seriously, it is anything goes. 20 piece orchestra or 1 man and laptop. Quit with the discrimination. Be open to all possibilities and hope that you’ll hear something new and challenging. That’s what it is all about.

    • It’s not the visual aspect I’m questioning. It’s the live, in the moment aspect that I believe is a contract between artist and audience, whether it’s a symphony orchestra playing Bach, a jazz band laying down some be-bop or an electronic artist dialing in digital code. If concerts are for people to get together, network and interact, then lets quit the pretense of a live performance. I’ll put together a nice mix tape, or maybe launch a Bloom soundscape and we can talk over some beers 😉 We’re not talking DJ sets in a club where music is part of the environment. We’re talking sit-down concert performances where I think the artist has some obligation to actually play.

      Totally agree with your last line, “Be open to all possibilities.” You can’t put limitations on music or even what constitutes music. You’ll note, I haven’t questioned the actual music of any artist. But I’ve seen hundreds of electronic concerts and I can say that watching Tangerine Dream perform live in 1976, where virtually everything started at the fingers, was a much more compelling experience than seeing them live in 1993 when virtually everything was off computers. I can say that watching Jonsi orchestrate one of the best theatrical performances of the decade was more exciting than watching [name laptop jockey here] stare into a computer screen while a freeze-dried performance played out.

  11. Thanks for the reply. Don’t get me wrong. I too want a good visual show as much as anyone. As some have remarked here, its hard to incorporate those elements when you’re doing all you can to make the music. That said, let’s discuss how to make it better world for you and me.

    I will start by offering that show organizers and or musicians may want to franchise their concert opportunity by offering video and other visual artists the venue to collaborate with the musicians.

    What other ideas do people have for keeping it interesting? What do you want to see as the audience and not. Costumes? Light Shows? Lasers? Smoke? Mirrors? I am serious. 🙂

    • Jack-It’s not the visual element I’m concerned about. It’s the idea that I want the music and the musician to be in the moment with me in an act of creation. They can play on a black, unlit stage as far as I’m concerned. In fact, one of the most powerful concerts I saw in recent years was Stars of the Lid @ The Gatherings with a string quartet and an almost completely darkened stage.

  12. This is the reason that we adapt our material for a live performance or do uniquely composed for live pieces.
    Using the computer DAW in the studio is one thing, but it’s becoming a crutch for the live shows.
    If we can’t do it without a computer we choose another piece, or deliberately work with just those things that will be used on stage/on-air.

    I owe this attitude pretty much to the RMI lads and also to your previous thread about laptop concerts [and I adore the comment on that thread by Jeff Pearce regarding fake show/fake money…]

    I think it DOES matter to people, even those not ‘in the know’.

    There was a show at the Gatherings a couple years back, and no, I won’t name names, where the ‘performer’ played over CD backing tracks.
    I felt completely ripped-off. That was just outright inexcusable.

  13. Oh no…I see a growing subtle prejudice against laptops forming and I am concerned with the unintended consequences:

    Soon, those of us that use laptop as:

    1) a unique sound source
    2) a cheaper alternative to boutique priced hardware/collecter priced vintage gear will get lumped into the category of those playing with backing tracks…

    I think it is fairly easy to tell the difference between someone who is playing with a “backing track” and someone who is “doing it live with a computer as a tool”…

    …but for those of use unable to notice the difference, the glow of the laptop screen will generate questions of authenticity. I have seen this happen with people “in the know” lately too…

    I know that I have been personally affected by this… I feel that I need to run out and buy outboard gear to replace my computer-as-a-sound-source/sequencer so that I don’t get the “hairy eye” from the musicians in the audience…

    I’d also hate to see creativity stifled because of this unfounded prejudice…a lot of young people are discovering electronic music though their laptops.

    Let be careful to draw deep distinctions between those who “press play” and check their email on stage versus those who is the laptop as a cheaper alternative to a Moog Modular with a couple of 960 sequencers.

    For a couple of grand, I can own a laptop, Virtual Moog Modular, Apr2600, Minimoog, CS-80, Prophet 5…et cetera. The alternative is 10’s of thousands of dollars. Should a) spend the huge money? or b) play less dense music live? (believe me, if I could afford all those real instruments, I would do just this!) Cost to value ratio is high here…

    That all being said, I don’t want to watch someone press play and solo.
    I’m just concerned about the attitude that seems to be emerging.

    • All great points Mike and exactly the kind of distinction I was hoping to make. For instance, Philip Glass has a new album called Retrospective, which is a live album masquerading as a greatest hits collection. They use computers to generate the sounds, but every note is actually played live. And you can tell the difference.

  14. like my friends in hungry lucy, my band, lovespirals, faces the same challenges for live shows. the most recent one we did a few months back in support of our mostly electronica album, future past, we said screw it: let’s do it all live with me on a stratocaster and anji bee singing live. sure, missing everything else, the songs didn’t resemble their album versions all that much. but we were able to distill it down to each song’s essence and find a new way to give life to them. that said, it’d be great if i could find four or five talented musicians to go out and play with us, but that’s just not happening right now.

  15. Wolfram Spyra’s been going downhill for years now so hardly surprising it was an uninspiring concert. I stopped listening some time ago.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.