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Music Review: Pat Metheny – Orchestrion

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You might wonder, if you're the curious/skeptical sort, why the late 1800's concept of the orchestrion needs a modern update. Aren't we headed toward the inevitable, all-digital future? What's with all of these 'new' instruments with their pesky & outdated moving parts?

To get to a proper answer, we need to cast off the bias that's draped over the question — that the digital reproduction of music is inherently better than the mechanical. With the Orchestrion project, Pat Metheny has shown that the two modes of technology can come together to create unexpected advancements in sound, composition, and improvisation that transcend concepts like 'old' and 'new.'

Metheny has always had a free relationship with technology, so it's not surprising to hear his account of the hours spent fascinated with his grandfather's player piano. With his innovative use the digital tools such as the SynClavier and the guitar synthesizer, he was one of a handful of musicians whose ears were finely attuned to the possibilities of silicone-enhanced jazz.

This latest development, which employs a fusion of solenoid/pneumatic-actuated instruments with a digital front-end, gives Metheny a huge sonic palette to drawn on. There are loads of percussion instruments (including vibes, orchestral bells, drumkit, cymbals, and the like), electric bass, "guitarbots" (check out the video!), as well as a Yamaha Disklavier. The idea of a mechanically actuated guitar has a certain odd appeal for me, but my favorite instrument in this ensemble (if it can be called that) is the cabinet of tuned bottles, the "bottle organ." It is a set of chromatically-tuned bottles that produce notes when blown with air. They also light up while sounding out, adding to the spectacle.

So let's get back to it: Why? Hasn't sampled playback technology come along far enough to replace old-fashioned mechanical instrumentation? Mostly, the answer is 'No.' Or maybe: "Not quite." While reproduction has come a long way, it's not good enough to completely replace the real thing. There is a certain 'something' about the power and presence of acoustic instruments that is still very difficult to reproduce with even the most-advanced modern recording and playback technologies.

If you listen to Orchestrion's five compositions, you can hear Metheny reveling in an environment that allows him to interact directly with his own vision of music. He’s created every single note via a guitar or keyboard, then improvising over his own ideas during playback. What's more, Pat can drive any of the instruments in real-time as he plays the guitar. Since Metheny is so fond of having his melodic line followed by a second instrument (often performed by long-time collaborator Lyle Mays), this capability seems like a perfect fit.

The album's title track kicks things off with a display that is very characteristic of Metheny's style of melodic development. I think of this as the "long-form melody." Pat tends to write melodies that extend over unusually long periods of time. That source material is then stretched across the musical landscape that's constructed as time proceeds. While "Orchestrion" revisits that construct, what's amazing is to hear how the interactions between all of the other instruments add color and character. The funny thing here is that the reflex is to describe this as 'interaction,' when what's really going on is interaction not in the 'normal' sense, but interaction as Metheny 'hears' it in his head. And yet…those notes from the vibes are indeed physically following that arpeggio from the piano, just as the bass is supporting the structure as it shifts.

Definitely a new way to think about what 'interactive' means.

When I first read about Metheny's intent, I wondered about how 'human' it would end up sounding. Though percussion has always been very important to him (and he has played with a long list of incredible stickmen including Naná Vasconcelos, Roy Haynes, Don Alias, Armando Marçal, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Wertico, and Antonio Sanchez), I was a little skeptical that "the machine" would be too obvious. Right, go ahead and give "Soul Search" a listen. It opens with some bluesy bass/piano passages that Metheny plays over (Oh my, that "bottle organ" is beautiful), and adds in several layers of percussion before taking an abrupt mid-composition turn into straight swing. I'll be damned if that ride cymbal doesn't sound fantastic, as does the walking bassline that precedes Pat's short tribute to Miles' "Milestones." Forget the technology, this is just great stuff.

It was during the closing "Spirit Of The Air" that I totally forgot this was only one person playing. The tune begins with a figure that is repeated until it becomes the main motif. Pat starts building his melody as the bass slips underneath and chimes ring out. In traditional jazz improv fashion, the 'band' drops away to allow the guitar to riff over minimal percussion and bass. But wait…I've been fooled…there's no band here! And again, as other bits of percussion are added back in and Metheny raises the intensity level, it's very easy to forget what's really going on.

And what IS going on, exactly? Honestly, just some great music. This is no hi/lo tech parlor trick. This is a curious musical mind unleashed. Pat has stated that, for this recording, he has used his Orchestrion in a more compositional mode, with most of the improvisation left to his guitar. Apparently, we can look forward to future experiments with "the machine" taking on a more prominent improvisational role.

All of this from a player piano in a basement in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Digital is the future? Maybe.

Orchestrion is released today on Nonesuch Records.

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About Mark Saleski

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    That was fantastic, but still a little creepy.
    It’s kinda like those mechanized mannequins that I have seen before…somewhere.

    Honestly? Until musicians & engineers can fully capture an analog frequency in a digital environment then digital reproduction will not replace the acoustic instrument. Granted, in theory(I believe Nyquist??) the maximum frequency we can actually hear is debatable but I do feel that those “inaudible” frequencies that an analog bandwidth can reach are very important to the overall audio experience.

    Plus, for Mr. Metheny,I think it’s the real-time control that allows him to present his own musical statement without communication issues or having to edit his own dubs on a computer that makes it much more exciting and authentic.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Though…Imagine having to take that monster on a tour and the roadies it would take to set it up…

  • brian, there was an article in (i think) this month’s stereophile, that talked about an reproduced vs. live experiment. pretty interesting.

    and yessir, this will take some serious work to setup/tear down.

  • Josh Hathaway

    Okay, everything other than Pat’s hair in that video is kind of fucking cool. Saleski, you may have sold me on this one. We might have to have us one of those.

  • As the Director of LEMUR, the group that created most of the Orchestrion instruments, I was thrilled to be a part of this project. To see more of LEMUR’s instruments and music, check out the videos on lemurbots.org.

  • hi eric. you do have a lot to be proud of here. this was a very cool project.

  • josh, pat’s hair has always looked like that! 😉

  • Josh Hathaway

    But it shouldn’t. We all have bad hair when we’re young. You had the Greg Brady look at one time, but you don’t now. He needs a barber.

    I’m looking forward to hearing those compositions, though. Those clips in the background of the video were intriguing.

  • Tim Benz

    I can’t wait to see this in Chicago…

    Pat ALWAYS keeps a human touch in his music. “As Falls Wichita” tempered the technology of the day with Nana’s vocals and percussion.

    This project has amazed since I read about it 6 or 7 months ago. I don’t think people can fully realize what this guy sets out to do. He could coast on his past, but he pushes the envelope. I thought he outdid himself with “The Way Up”, but this forges still newer ground.

    Unbelievable work and kudos to Eric and the LEMUR folks. From my understanding, your approach with the solenoids/pneumatics is what got the gears moving for Pat. I can only imagine working that closely with him on this project.

    And lastly, Pat Metheny without the shag, is not Pat Metheny. He trimmed it (slightly) shorter in the late 90’s, and he looked silly.

  • This is pretty fascinating. And his hair is not that bad I guess.

  • Michael J. Small

    Absolutely amazing. I’ve always relished nearly everything Pat Metheny has done. He truly is a remarkable composer and musical luminary. I can’t wait until he comes to San Diego in April 2010.

  • Rich S

    Tim, I was wondering what Pat could possibly do to “push the envelope” further after The Way Up and this is it – never had an idea it might be an ultimate “one man band”. As others mentioned, it would be interesting to hear what it takes to set this up on tour. I’ve got my tickets for the St. Louis performance.

  • Aaron on the Gulf of Mexico

    I’ve been a fan of Pat Metheny over 30 years and was lucky enough to attend his one night performance of Orchestrion near Tampa last week. A friend purchased my tickets and surprised me only a few hours before the performance. A long term fan, I recognize and enjoy Pat’s always present diversity in every new album featuring a new idea, or a new direction. Pat is unquestionably one of the best jazz guitarists in history, but I had no idea how much I’d enjoy seeing him without some of the great musicians he’s allied himself with throughout his past.

    Well, Orchestrion was brilliant. It was unmistakable Pat Metheny, once again, new and innovative. Like the Wizard of Oz pulling various levers and throwing switches, Pat slowly revealed what he had going on behind the curtain. What he devised after puttering around last year with the ideas he created so long ago in his Grandfather’s basement was ingenious. Various dated pieces of orchestrial junk came to life as a huge collection of instantly responding musical savants, exhibiting their own personality and technical skill under Pat’s unique tutorledge. Many times I found myself slipping into each note of Pat’s moody and emotional creativity, just to see the stage and again realize there were no other band members, and that I really hadn’t missed them. “He must have fired them”, I joked to myself. It was apparent the audience was captivated by this large but lonely mechanical repertoire, as I noticed of all the foot tapping, head bobbing and standing ovations each piece received. Addressing the audience Pat thoughtfully shared his project in the making, his explaination that it is apparently his newest ongoing experiment.

    Orchestrion is just another accomplishment in Pat’s long list of creative acheivements and I was glad I had the chance to see it.

  • armes

    i saw the show in Toronto and was blown away. one question though, there were obviously pre-recorded tracks. piano and percussion. did Pat play them, or did he use live players, and if so, who were they?