Pat Metheny’s one-man band
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