MIAMI — Before he became an internationally lauded jazz musician, before he learned to play the guitar, Pat Metheny fell in love with the player piano in his grandparents’ basement in Manitowoc, Wis. At 9 years old, the multi-Grammy-winning jazz composer was fascinated by the clumping, old-fashioned wooden invention that he’d play on family visits.
“It was ancient and really old-fashioned. It even had that smell of something from the 1800s,” Metheny says. “At the same time it was like science fiction, Jules Verne, it had that quality to me. You kind of invented stories to go with it ... What is this thing, and how is it doing this?”
Almost 50 years later, Metheny has invented a 21st-century version of that player piano. He and a group of inventors have re-created a 19th-century music-making machine called an orchestrion, constructing an elaborate contraption with pianos, marimba, vibraphone, guitars, bells, percussion, bottles and other sound-making devices that he plays with his guitar.
The orchestrion, which Metheny built over several years in collaboration with a far-flung group of inventors, allows him to create a more interesting musical story with a much more sophisticated version of the machinery that fascinated him as a child.
He’d never really liked the music of the player piano. “Over the years I always wondered, ‘Why does it have to play such dumb music?’” Metheny, 55, says from a West Virginia tour stop. “Why can’t it play some hip chords?”
Orchestrions were the next stage in musical technology after the player piano, created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to sound like an orchestra, playing organ, piano, percussion, even wind instruments. Metheny became fascinated by them, going to museums, exhibits and performances of the odd instrument wherever and whenever he could.
“There’s a little cult of the old orchestrions,” he says. “A subgroup of a subgroup of a subgroup. It wasn’t a huge thing for me, but it was something I kept my eye on.”
In 2006, Metheny was inspired to take his fascination further. He had just performed Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” at Carnegie Hall, part of a celebration of the famed composer’s 70th birthday. The piece, which Reich wrote for Metheny in the mid-‘80s, consists of 12 prerecorded parts, over which Metheny played live.
As he stood there listening to a standing ovation, Metheny thought, “If we’re in an era where it’s cool to play in Carnegie Hall with a tape, then this is the time to do an orchestrion.”
His decades-long interest in the instrument served him well, as he brought together inventors working in various kinds of musical mechanics.
“I knew that this guy over here was doing some interesting work with percussion, and this guy was good at pneumatic stuff, and this one at foot controls,” Metheny said. “Not only did they not know each other, but they didn’t know the others existed.”
Although Metheny has been at the forefront of musical technology throughout his career — he was one of the first jazz musicians to use the synthesizer for serious composition, and has helped invent several kinds of guitars — he wanted the orchestrion to produce sound in a traditional, physical way: piano keys would play, mallets would strike marimbas and drums, and so on.
The technology that moves the orchestrion’s instruments is quite complex (“It would take me two hours to explain,” he says), and uses computers to feed signals generated by Metheny’s guitar-playing. But he did not want any synthesized or computer-made sounds — no grandiose laptop theatrics for him.
“The electronic music thing, as with so much of pop music, morphed into something that to me is slightly corny,” Metheny says. “The idea of someone sitting with a laptop onstage churning out versions of that same beat that’s dominated pop music for the last 50 years — boom chuk, boom chuk — seems really corny. My quota of that was up in 1968 anyway.”
Instead, the orchestrion let him expand what for Metheny has always been the most satisfying musical experience: playing an acoustic guitar. “I don’t really like speakers all that much,” he says. “I’ve never been as happy with that sound as when I pick up a guitar and play it in a small room. That’s fine as long as it’s just you and one or two other people in the room, but as soon as you play acoustic guitar with a drummer no one’s gonna hear a note you play and we’re back to speakers.”
Now the basic gesture of playing the guitar becomes a whole orchestra of sounds, an experience he describes as intimate and infinite at the same time.
“The thing about this whole project is it’s very, very personal for me,” Metheny says. “It’s built on the dream of a 9-year-old, so it’s a funny thing.”