Pat Metheny Talks "Orchestrion": Extended Q&A


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I recently connected with guitarist Pat Metheny about his new Orchestrion album and tour. My story, as published in the St. Petersburg Times, is available here. The lengthy extended version is below:

Pat Metheny is nothing if not an inveterate musical explorer. The accomplished guitarist and composer, best known for his commercially successful work with The Pat Metheny Group, has also played straight-ahead jazz with the likes of late saxophonist Michael Brecker, traveled avant-garde terrain with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and turned in a disc's worth of sheer overdriven guitar noise and feedback, Zero Tolerance for Silence.

In recent years, he's led a hard-driving trio with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez, and co-led a project with acclaimed pianist Brad Mehldau.

For his recently released Orchestrion, Metheny uses his six-string and the titular high-tech device to control sundry keyboards, mallet instruments, percussion, “guitarbots," and other acoustic and electric instruments. On the CD, the one-man orchestra delivers an inventively arranged set of long, multi-textured compositions incorporating jazz, fusion, folk and classical elements that are reminiscent of the 2005 Pat Metheny Group album, The Way Up.

While on tour in Europe, Metheny responded to questions about the recording and tour, which stops Friday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

Do you view your orchestrion as being linked musically, mechanically, or otherwise to your memories of your grandfather's player piano and the old-style orchestrions you have seen?

Yes, as you indicated, the genesis of this project comes from my grandfather's basement. My mom's dad was a great musician; he had all kinds of instruments. He was a fantastic professional trumpet player, he was a banjo player, a great singer, and among the instruments in his collection was a player piano from the late 1800s and the early 1900s that were so popular when he was a kid. And he introduced me to that, and had lots of piano rolls, and I just thought it was the coolest thing. I, of course, loved to go to Wisconsin where they lived my Mom's home town was Manitowoc, Wisconsin every summer, anyway. But one of the highlights was getting to play with the player piano, and I used to get under there and get a flashlight and try to figure out how it worked, and I would unscrew things and screw them in. It was just fantastic for me to really get inside there and sort of imagine the mechanics of it.

I've always been interested in instruments like that. I've gone to many museums and gone to lots of exhibits and various concerts where people have presented player pianos and orchestrions of that era, and I've kind of tucked that away somewhere, and always imagined that it might be fun to try to look at those instruments through the prism of everything else that I've done in terms of harmony, and in terms of melody. It always struck me like: why did those instruments have to sound like that? Couldn't they sound like this? I always figured that this would be something that lots of people would be doing, and I'm kind of amazed that we've gotten to ten years into the twenty-first century and it hasn't really been explored that much.

There certainly have been a few people who have looked at this stuff, but not really people that are, I would say, in my general vicinity of those particular interests in music in terms of harmony and so forth. Certainly not at all with anything that involves improvisation (of this nature on the kinds of detailed forms and structures inherent to these pieces.)

So, with that idea in mind, over the past several years I've gone to a number of different inventor guys to build, essentially, this orchestra that you hear, that is all custom-made instruments just for this project, that I'm putting under the auspices of “The Orchestrion Project" or “Orchestrion."

What kinds of opportunities, in terms of composing, and the breadth and depth of textures you can tap into, have become available to you through using the orchestrion, that perhaps aren't available to you in band settings?

I don't really compare it to anything else. It is its own thing. It isn't better or worse, it is something different.

It does seem to be an idea with a certain pull. People were obviously drawn to this same kind of thing in a fairly extravagant way a hundred years ago. And I don't really see myself as being that wildly off the grid in general, my impulse with this was that I had been thinking about it since I was 9, and I was honestly amazed as each year went by that no one else had really gone all the way with it as medium in the modern era, using advanced harmony, compositional techniques, as a platform for improvising, etc.

The experience of committing to this, then writing music for the instruments, and then preparing for a extensive tour has unbelievably challenging in every way. Besides the huge mass of technical things that I had to formulate and implement, I also had to examine my own views about music from many different angles. Honestly, I am not interested in any music that doesn't groove or does not reflect spirit and soulfulness. Had I not been able to reconcile my standards of what is contained in those needs with the realities of what this setting offered, I would have bagged it. However, once the instruments came in and I started to figure out what was really possible with them, that thought never again crossed my mind.

I settled on making a record that roughly follows the broad general harmonic and melodic interests that has been with me from the beginning. It just seemed like a good place to start. However, live, there is much broader window. I am doing a lot of things where i just make up the whole thing from the ground up in real time, playing all of the instruments from the guitar. Also, I have been doing some free stuff that has been really interesting.

Do you see the music as related to the music you've composed for the Group, or for your other projects?

I think people can usually hear that it is me regardless of what I do.

However, this is a different form with a different set of outcomes, outcomes that I would not have gotten to any other way. So, while it is about the maximum amount of personal information you could get from me since I am playing everything, I also would say that it stands apart from anything else I have done for those same reasons.

Can you describe, in layman's terms, how you use your guitar to trigger the orchestrion instruments?

The most basic explanation I could give is that they are like MIDI instruments, but real. From the guitar (or keyboard, or from Sibelius, Digital Performer, MaxMSP, or whatever) the instruments wait for a MIDI signal, hear it, and perform a mechanical rendering of what the intent is of that signal using a process that converts MIDI into physical motion in a variety of ways.

I read that the drum set was Jack DeJohnette's, the mallets came from Gary Burton, and the GuitarBot came from LEMUR. Where did the other instruments and devices come from?

There are several Disklaviers involved in this project. Yamaha has been incredibly supportive of the project and has provided me with an instrument for the recording that's beautiful, way better than my at-home model. And their technology is sort of the standard in a way that I'm measuring everything else to.

Among the other instruments that are here the Peterson Company in Chicago built this amazing I guess you could call it a bottle ensemble. It's a group of blown bottles that are tuned chromatically that have just an amazing, beautiful sound. And Peterson is a company that's known for their tuners, but little known for all the work behind the scenes that they do with pipe organs. And, I got a gentleman on the phone there who understood exactly what I was looking for and kind of suggested this instrument as something that was within the realm of possibility. And I just kind of followed his lead and we have this gorgeous bottle organ.

Ken Caulkins has been deeply involved in this area for thirty-some years now; he has a company in California called Ragtime West, where he does the most amazing instruments you'll ever see, all in a more traditional pneumatic kind of way, but fascinating and beautifully made instruments of all kinds. He's done stuff for Disney World, he's done stuff for, I don't know, the Sultan of Brunei's daughter's wedding I mean, he just does these wacky, huge projects, and has kind of cracked the whole thing of MIDI talking to these kinds of instruments from a completely different angle than the solenoid-kind of modern Brooklyn hipster guys, kind of like Eric and that crew. It's really been fun and interesting to sort of go between these two worlds that are kind of getting similar results, but from wildly different perspectives.

What kind of maintenance/care is required to keep everything functioning properly? Do you have a large road crew?

In the end, it is not unlike a regular tour. Yes, there is a crew of a few people and we have to keep lots of spare parts and it takes all day to set up and do a soundcheck and everything. But that is also true with me when I do trio gigs. Having done so much touring for so many years gives us a certain kind of experience to be able to do stuff like this i guess.

I know you've always been an advocate of musicians taking advantage of technology. Through the process of putting together this project, have
you gained new ways of thinking about all of that?

This palette just as it stands now is so rich. I feel like I just scratched the surface. Also, I anticipate lots of new instrument makers in this area. This field in general is often described as kind of being roughly where the computer industry was in 1976 with a similar trajectory to come. Musical instruments seem to always be on our human list of desires as new things come along. I think that has been true since some guy found that this or that rock sounded better with this or that stick in our early days.

Have you had any concerns that the technology required to drive the project would detract or distract from the musical creativity?

None. I sort of don't subscribe to that whole concept. Instruments--all instruments--are by definition agents of technology. Is a piano player really touching that string? Let's examine what goes into that. How about taking the valves out of a trumpet and see what notes that guy can still play out of the 12 that the pistons allow him. For me, the technology of what makes what I am doing now possible is something I have literally grown up with and feel as natural around as reeds and mouthpieces are for horn players.

Are you surprised that the resultant music has as much warmth as it

The way it ended up sounding was what I was working hard to get to. Like any other instrument, they don't really sound that way just out of the case--you have to work to get a good result.

The “Orchestrion" tour is a long haul. Do you miss having that onstage interaction with other musicians?

I guess you could ask the same thing of any musician who plays a solo concert, couldn't you?

This is my instrument. There a million ways I can set up conversations, question and answers, calls and responses and everything from the most composed and organized sound to the most totally improvised sounds, using many combinations of instruments or any solo instruments are all possible.

Do you expect to play the “Orchestrion" music with other musicians, at some point?

That could be really interesting.

What's next for you, in terms of recordings--your own and others'--or collaborations? Will you soon be touring with the Group? With the Metheny/Mehldau band? With your trio with Christian and Antonio?

Brad and I recorded a whole bunch of live shows which at some point we should get out there. The PMG is going to do a few concerts this summer as a quartet playing the “songbook" which will be fun. And yes, I am always thinking trio. And I have a bunch of other ideas too.

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This story appears courtesy of Between the Grooves with Philip Booth.
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