So­le­noid soul

Pat Metheny’s one-man band

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Paul Wei­de­man

Pat Metheny’s new al­bum, Orchestrion, doesn’t sound like robot mu­sic, but much of it is. The rea­son it works so well is that it’s Pat Metheny do­ing it.

The vet­eran jazz gui­tarist and com­poser takes up the man­tle of play-ev­ery-in­stru­ment pi­o­neers like Paul McCart­ney (on 1970’s McCart­ney) and Mike Oldfield (1973’s Tubu­lar Bells) — but with a fas­ci­nat­ing dif­fer­ence. Metheny does it by means of an orchestrion, which he plays at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Fri­day, April 16.

In the 19th cen­tury, or­chestri­ons were con­trap­tions that em­ployed the au­to­matic-mu­sic prin­ci­pal of player pi­anos but ex­panded it to in­clude wind and per­cus­sion in­stru­ments. The ex­tent of Metheny’s mu­si­cal ar­ray is told in the notes for the new al­bum. Rather than the usual “Pat Metheny: gui­tar,” we see “Pat Metheny: gui­tar and orchestri­on­ics (pi­anos, marimba, vi­bra­phone, or­ches­tra bells, basses, gui­tar­bots, per­cus­sion, cym­bals and drums, blown bot­tles, and other custom-fab­ri­cated acous­tic me­chan­i­cal in­stru­ments).” An­other way of de­scrib­ing it is a bat­tery of mu­si­cal voices (be­sides his gui­tar) that are op­er­ated by about 400 so­le­noids and 100 pneu­matic de­vices.

“This has been such an in­ter­est­ing thing, and of course it’s con­nected to this whole child­hood thing,” Metheny said in a re­cent in­ter­view. When he was a kid, Metheny used to love crawl­ing un­der an old player pi­ano in his grand­fa­ther’s base­ment and then shin­ing a flash­light up into its mech­a­nisms, un­screw­ing things, and screw­ing them back in. As an adult, he has tracked an­tique player pi­anos and or­chestri­ons in mu­se­ums and per­for­mances. Fi­nally, a few years ago, he be­gan looking for in­ven­tors who could build the el­e­ments of his own orchestrion.

His bass and many per­cus­sion in­stru­ments came from Ken Caulkins, pro­pri­etor of Rag­time West in Ceres, Cal­i­for­nia. Metheny found the Peter­son Com­pany — based in Chicago — while re­search­ing pipe-or­gan com­pa­nies. Peter­son built Metheny an or­gan — ba­si­cally an as­sort­ment of tuned bot­tles that are played with pneu­mat­i­cally blown air. “I have all this bang­ing and smack­ing and hit­ting and pluck­ing, and I needed some kind of sus­tain el­e­ment,” Metheny ex­plained. “I al­ways loved that sound of blow­ing over a Coke bot­tle, so I thought if I could get some­one to build some kind of air de­vice, I’d be able to achieve that.”

Metheny em­pha­sized that his orchestrion has no synth el­e­ments and uses no dig­i­tal sam­pling: ev­ery­thing is phys­i­cal and me­chan­i­cal. That im­per­a­tive goes back to the old player pi­ano, which formed pow­er­ful as­so­ci­a­tions in the young Metheny. “It was some­thing an­cient,” he said. “It had that smell of some­thing very old, and yet at the same time it was also fu­tur­is­tic.”

His bud­ding in­ter­est in non­tra­di­tional mu­si­cal giz­mos got a sig­nif­i­cant boost with the emer­gence of the Yamaha Disklavier in the late 1980s. The Disklavier, a mod­ern player pi­ano that also has record­ing and mem­ory ca­pa­bil­i­ties, is a so­phis­ti­cated so­le­noid-based in­stru­ment. Yamaha has of­fered its sup­port of Metheny’s orchestrion project, in­clud­ing fur­nish­ing him with a new Disklavier. New York in­ven­tor Eric Singer built a bunch of Metheny’s smaller, so­le­noid-based in­stru­ments, in­clud­ing the “gui­tar­bots.”

“Those are maybe the odd­est of the in­stru­ments,” Metheny said. “They’re very un­usual and quirky and clearly the re­sult of the bril­liant mind of Eric Singer. He’s a vi­sion­ary cat. Yeah, it’s like three picks that are go­ing around in a cir­cle pluck­ing a string. It’s ca­pa­ble of pick­ing very, very fast.”

To have a va­ri­ety of voices was only one of Metheny’s goals. Other chal­lenges were fig­ur­ing out how to play all the in­stru­ments and to coax dy­nam­ics, from soft to loud. The ad­van­tage of so­le­noids is that they of­fer some dy­namic range, but even the Disklavier, which Metheny said “re­mains kind of the gold stan­dard” in such mu­sic tech­nol­ogy, can­not pro­duce the very pow­er­ful and very soft tones you get with a pi­ano or sax­o­phone.

“The irony is,” he said, “that the gui­tar has the small­est dy­namic range of any jazz in­stru­ment ex­cept for maybe vibes, so I’ve kind of spent 40 years work­ing on max­i­miz­ing the il­lu­sion of dy­namic ex­pan­sion. My par­tic­u­lar touch is very good at cre­at­ing a sense of dy­nam­ics that goes be­yond what’s ac­tu­ally there, so the gui­tar is an ex­cel­lent con­trol de­vice for this stuff.”

Many of the orchestrion voices are con­trolled with the gui­tar. Oth­ers he con­trols with his feet. “There’s a lot of foot stuff go­ing on in a per­for­mance, but an enor­mous amount of time was spent set­ting up things on the front end so I can do ev­ery­thing with my feet,” he said. “I can re­ally do any­thing I want; it’s an open-ended plat­form.”

Rhythm and per­cus­sion are cru­cial in Metheny’s orchestrion per­for­mances. “The rhyth­mic as­pect of any kind of mu­sic is ab­so­lutely the cen­tral thing for me. It’s all about the drums; it’s all about the feel; it’s all about whether it’s groov­ing, and to me that is some­thing dif­fer­ent from har­mony and melody in that you can quan­tify it.

“With rhythm, we can say this feels good or it doesn’t feel good. It’s a vis­ceral body re­sponse. Yet at the same time, enough study has been done, through com­put­ers, ac­tu­ally, and all the DJs in the world who have made it their busi­ness to get peo­ple to shake their booty — which I’m not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in, but it ab­so­lutely ap­plies to this project. A groove is a groove, and if it’s not groovin’, I know. For me, as a lis­tener, I can’t hang with it.”

We may have an im­age of the man sit­ting at the con­trols of this orchestrion on­stage, but that’s not what hap­pens. Metheny is most as­suredly an artist, but he’s also an en­ter­tainer. “I’m mov­ing around a lot,” he said. “To me, some­body sit­ting at a lap­top com­puter on­stage was hip in 1994 for about two weeks.”

He has done more than 40 con­certs with the orchestrion. “The first gig I did will go down, as I lie on my death bed, as prob­a­bly the scari­est night of my life, for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, most of which are mu­si­cal. The mu­sic I wrote is the hard­est mu­sic I’ve ever writ­ten, by far. It’s 300 pages of densely writ­ten ma­te­rial, and that’s sort of the cen­ter­piece of what the con­cert is. Just to mem­o­rize it was weeks and weeks of work, be­sides the fact that I was do­ing ev­ery­thing else try­ing to make sure ev­ery­thing was go­ing to do what it had to do.

“Once I got a cou­ple of gigs un­der my belt, I could sort of start en­joy­ing it but also re­ally start the hard work, which is the mu­si­cal work, and I’m still in the mid­dle of that. One thing about th­ese con­certs is that th­ese are prob­a­bly some of the best date nights, be­cause there’s so much to talk about. It man­i­fests a cer­tain dis­cus­sion quotient that’s pretty high. It makes you look at things a lit­tle dif­fer­ently, and that can’t be a bad thing.”

The mu­si­car­ium of Doc­tor Metheny: Pat Metheny, photo by Jimmy Katz

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