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Pat Metheny: it's the player, not the ax

Jazz musician and composer Pat Metheny is one of three judges evaluating some of the wild new instruments that are part of the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition , being held this week at Georgia Tech.

An inveterate tinkerer with low-tech and high-tech musical gizmos, Metheny is comfortable in this briar patch. His signature digitally-delayed guitar sound, his synth guitars, and his grotesquely beautiful 42-string mutant called a Pikasso guitar , all signal a willingness to invent.

He also has spent time and resources assembling an Orchestrion, a room-full of string and percussion instruments that he can control in live performance. It has to be seen to be believed .

So we had an email conversation with Metheny about musical instruments, innovation, and musicality.

Q. You and Gil Weinberg (founding director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Music Technology) spoke about the differences between his work with artificial intelligence (his robots actually improvise), and your work with the Orchestrion. Do you think the future of musical instruments is in making more sounds controllable by individuals, or is it somewhere else?

A. I have always loved the way Ray Kurzweil describes technology as offering us a way to extend our reach - that is what tools have always done. In the case of artists it seems there has always been a very natural impulse to explore the technological possibilities of each era from angles that might not have been obvious even to the creators of the tech at hand. I think each musician carries their own sensibilities and each individual seem to bring a certain weight to bear that often winds up defining the possibilities of a new technology in sometimes unimaginable ways. For instance, the early inventors of the drum set probably never imagined what someone like Elvin Jones would eventually get to with the instrument.

Q. Can you recognize a good musical instrument even if it’s not in the hands of a good musician?

A. I would say that it works in reverse more often. Someone who carries a strong musicality can manifest that in lots of different ways that often appear almost effortless. On the other hand, I am not sure a 7-year-old beginning violin player would be able to illuminate the glory of a Stradivarius. And from a guitar standpoint, there is a whole other angle…I often see people who have luthier-made custom instruments costing tens of thousands of dollars, but the way the strings and neck are adjusted there is no way it will ever sound good - and they don’t even notice. And then there is just a matter of an instrument being in tune or not….some people just can’t hear that. So, I would say the musician always brings the music.

Regarding “programming”, “artificial intelligence” “improvising” and some other words that are often thrown around in this general area; in all cases, it is the intrinsic musicality of the people behind the prime impulse to create that ultimately does or doesn’t shine through. Somehow the “garbage in, garbage out” rule always shows up somehow.

Q. Most of the instruments we play are hundreds of years old (not including the saxophone). Is it possible to come up with something new that doesn’t rely on electronics? Or do electronics and synthesized sound represent the likely future of new devices?

A. I personally feel that it isn’t an “either/or” question. My personal response to that argument is “both/and.” I guess that is pretty well reflected in my output over the years as well.

I have lived on the front lines of electricity and how it can be applied to music for almost 50 years now. I often joke that my first musical act was to plug it in.

However, there is an undeniable power, subtlety and complexity to acoustic sound that no speaker has ever gotten close to. My personal feeling is that people don’t even think about sound too much. For example, everyone just kind of accepts speakers, which is really the weakest part of the chain.

My main impulse in the Orchestrion project was to bring an acoustic output to join the amazing 21st century “front end” that we have by way of computers. The speaker-centric output side is by far the weakest thing we have going in the world of electric sound, although I could sort of argue that guitar players in general have taken this aspect of things much more seriously as a central aspect of individual identity. Most electronic guys seem to just want to show up wanting to know where their two inputs are for their laptop/interface without thinking too much about it.

Q. When are you bringing the Orchestrion back to Atlanta? Was that tour more of a headache than any other?

A. Actually, it was pretty straight-ahead. The only real problems along the way were almost exclusively from me making mistakes or something that was not properly executed by the crew person who set things up for that particular moment. In other words, pretty much like every other day is like being out on the road. In fact, the mechanical aspect of it all was quite robust.

I am thinking of doing it or something like it again in 3 to 4 years. By now, I have met the other eight wacky inventors on the planet doing interesting things in this area and it would be great to musically address some of the issues they present with their work.





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About the Author

Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native and a long-time AJC feature and news writer.