In the tiny village of Caux, just up the hill from the city of Montreux in Southwest Switzerland, there’s something called the Center for Moral Re-Armament. Two months every year, religious folk from all around the world gather in this well-appointed structure to discuss issues of peace, love and understanding—in essence to get themselves morally re-armed. There’s no smoking or drinking allowed in the rooms, and women are not permitted to have male guests.
I found this out from an Australian woman who’s lived in the area for a number of years and attended the local hotel school, which uses the Center for Moral Re-Armament as its main facility the rest of the year. Apparently, some of the things that go on in the rooms when the students take it over would make the Morally Re-Armed run screaming from the room, but that’s a whole other story.
Just up the road from the Center are the Chalet de Caux and adjacent Hotel A Cappel’Art, where a group of dealers, distributors, consultants, and journalists from around the world (including myself) have come as guests of Meyer Sound to attend the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival and learn all about the company’s newest products. You might call it the Center for Meyer Re-Armament; we’re here to listen to get ourselves filled with the spirit of quality loudspeakers.
Tim Chapman, Meyer’s tireless director of marketing, his lovely wife Gediz, and staff members Franzi Charen and Rachel Archibald serve as hosts (and, quite often, drivers) during the event, which runs the duration of the Festival, July 6-21, and is broken up into three blocks of time. I’ve come with the third and last crew, from July17-21. Our group is about sixty strong and features a large contingent of Chinese dealers, as well as a group of Russians, several Brits, a few Texans, and a couple from Australia. Most of them are strong Meyer suppliers and users, but I was surprised to find a few who didn’t carry their products. Perhaps this trip will change their minds.
I’d been invited last year, but it was around the time my daughter was due to be born, so I passed on the opportunity and my publisher, Jackie Tien, went instead. Meyer was kind enough to invite me a second time, and though I had mixed feelings about being away from my now one-year-old for a week, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Chapman himself picked me up at the airport in Geneva on the morning of the17th. He was driving an official Montreux Jazz Festival car, a Chrysler mini-van with sideview mirrors that fold in; my guess is that comes in handy on the narrow, hilly streets of Montreux and its environs. It was an hour’s drive from the airport to Montreux, and Chapman had already made one trip already that day. You quickly got the impression that the man was juggling a lot of balls at once, his cell phone ringing constantly. At one point there was concern that the Chinese delegation has somehow disappeared, though they eventually turned up at the chalet. His frenetic pace reminded me of that scene in Goodfellas, where Ray Liotta is dousing numerous fires at once, desperately trying to keep everything together--making the meatballs, dropping kids off at school, going to the grocery, checking on the drug shipment, taking the meatballs out of the oven, and then getting busted by the Feds at the end. Of course, here in Switzerland there are no Feds, no meatballs, and the only drug is marijuana (it’s legal here, apparently), but you get the idea. Through it all Chapman has maintained a cheery disposition.
On the way to the hotel, Tim explained to me that he had come to Montreux last year determined to convince John and Helen Meyer to stop these yearly events, which they’d been doing for over a dozen years (the Festival has used Meyer speakers since 1987, and the company is the only US sponsor of the event). He had just joined Meyer earlier in the year and saw the trip as a huge expense with little to show in return. But three weeks of music and schmoozing in the Swiss countryside made him realize that the event was a great opportunity to show off Meyer gear to current and potential clients (the company often uses the event to debut new products). In the end, not only did he not try to ditch the event, he expanded it, bringing in more people than in year’s past and coordinating two group events: a backstage tour of the festival, and a wine tasting. A bit of work, a bit of fun.
Though I’m only just halfway through my stay, he seems to have made the right decision. One of the trickier things to accomplish in a major project like this is finding the right mix of guests; there’s nothing worse than spending a week with people who don’t get along. Our group, including Miles, Rob and Peter from the UK, Nigel and his wife from Australia, Peter and Michele from LA, David and John from New York—all seem to mesh quite well, enjoying all that is being offered to them while keeping a keen ear on the sound system at the Festival. Conversations easily move from the cows in the pasture nearby to future of 5.1 to sightseeing tours to the latest industry gossip. Our hosts help in that regard; the daily happy hours at the chalet don’t hurt, either. The only dissension in the ranks comes from the cows grazing just outside the hotel windows; the huge bells around their necks make far too much noise early in the morning after long nights at the festival.
But the Festival is the main reason we are all here, and thus far it has not disappointed. This is the 35th year for the event; trivia buffs probably know that the Deep Purple song “Smoke on the Water” was inspired by a fire that burned down the Montreux casino where the festival was held in its early days. Performers in the previous two weeks have included Beck, BB King, Ray Brown, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Scott, Sigur Roos, Herbie Hancock, and Kruder & Dorfmeister. This week’s acts range from Celia Cruz to Run DMC, from Sting to The Pharcyde, from PJ Harvey to George Clinton, from Basement Jaxx to Chic Corea. Thus far, Patti Smith has been my personal favorite, though there is still much to see and hear. Clearly, this is a festival that has moved far beyond its jazz roots.
The bulk of the Montreux Jazz Festival is housed in an anonymous glass complex overlooking the Lac Leman. On Wednesday the 18th, we all congregated outside the building and met with Meyer’s Mark Johnson, who gave us a grand tour of the facility. His crew includes production coordinator Greg McVeigh, RMS and internet coordinator Todd Meier, loat out/export supervisor Stephanie Ballew, and systems engineer Paul Kohut. Mark’s the main man for audio at the festival, and has been running it for nearly a dozen years. It’s a lot of work, and in all the year’s he’s been doing it, he’s rarely had time to enjoy the Swiss scenery. He, too, looks a bit tired. I’m beginning to realize that three weeks in the Swiss countryside is not necessarily as idyllic as it sounds when it comes to pulling off an event like this.
Inside are two main venues: Stravinski Hall (below) and Miles Davis Hall. Our tour starts in the former, a well-appointed space with a 4,000-seat capacity; originally designed as a concert hall, it hosts orchestras and symphonies as well as seminars the rest of the year. Because of this, the reverb in the space is unmanageable for jazz or rock concerts, so Meyer worked with an acoustician to add panels and curtains to the space, cutting the reverb to two and a half seconds.
“dB” Dave Dennison runs the FOH in the Stravinski. The space features six Meyer M3Ds per side, seven UPMs on the lip of the stage, three M3D subs per side, and a center cluster of CQ-2s. Shure is another major supporter of the event, and technical support manager Michael Wolf was on hand to explain the mics used in the building. There are 40 UHF channels used in the entire space, but all are compatible so there is no interference in any of the stages. Stravinsky boasts 10 channels of UHF, 10 PSM 700 systems and a range of SM575s and Beta mics. Wolf noted that Montreux is the only festival Shure partners with in the world. A quick tour of the space saw mostly Vari*Lite VL-5s and VL-6s, PARcans, and ADB ellipsoidals in the space, provided by Scenetec Swiss Stage Lighting. The LD for Stravinski was Laurent Zumofen, and the set designer of the space was Adrian Moretti. Of course, this being an audio group, the lighting and sets weren't such a big deal, so we moved on.
In the smaller Miles Davis Hall, we found a venue well-suited to rock, hip-hop, and dance events. There are four MSL-40s per side, with UPA-2Ps and three subs as well as CQs on either side of the room, used only for DJs. It’s a tricky room, with its assymetrical shape, copper ceiling, and disposable carpet, but sound engineer Pablo Espinoza manages to keep in all in check. This space, I notice, also has all the moving lights, a range of Clay Paky Stage Scans and Martin MACs. (For a complete list of sound equipment click here.)
We also get tours of the Montreux Jazz Café (below), a space in the basement initially used to broadcast the World Cup games in 98 that now serves as a performance venue with late-night jam sessions; it features a range of M3D subs, UPAs, UPMs, and DS-4s. Outside at Festival Off, a small stage where local talent plays for free, is a smaller version of the setup in the Stravinsky. Even the various bars and retail shops boast Meyer equipment. Almost every sound heard during the Montreux Jazz Festival comes from a Meyer speaker, with the exception of the claps, shouts, and whistles from the wide array of fans attending the event.
At the end of the tour, Mark bought a round of drinks. I was glad to see he got himself one as well. He certainly deserved it. So, for that matter, did the rest of the Meyer crew. Cheers to all.
I’m going to finish up now and get ready for our wine tasting event, followed by a night of music by George Clinton, Living Colour, and Run DMC. And if it gets to be another late night, I may need to find some gaffer’s tape and muffle those damn cowbells.
For a full list of the crew click here.