A Mad Assemblage of Robotic Instruments: ‘Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Project’

Pat Metheny
Eagle Rock

There’s something very compelling about watching a guitar player make his art. Both the hands are at it, doing different things. The player is usually concentrating, but often not on the hands but on the music—out there somewhere in the aether, amidst music he is chasing with his instrument, a sound in his head that if he’s lucky he can craft into existence with those six strings and with talent. As that inspiration moves from head to hands, from the abstract into actual sound, you can get caught in the drama.

And so at the beginning of this film of the guitarist Pat Metheny, you’re caught immediately. Metheny sits on a stool with his hollow-body guitar before a red curtain and under phasing lights, playing with that immediately identifiable guitar tone of his. He’s searching for the sound. It’s riveting.

And then something else happens. Metheny is surrounded by other instruments. Not by a band of players but by actual acoustic instruments that are rigged to foot pedals and other electronics that Metheny can trigger as he plays. Tambourines being struck (and caught on microphone, of course), a hi-hat cymbal hit by a drumstick. On “Unity Village” that’s about it, with Metheny looping some guitar chords under his solo using foot pedals and looping software.

The Orchestrion Project is much more elaborate than that, however. As Metheny stands on an oriental rug in this film, he’s surrounded by percussion instruments much more varied: pianos and marimbas, vibraphones and triangles, ride cymbals and gongs, tubes, wildly rubbed saws, banjos and guitars hung on a wall, even what appear to be jugs of liquid somehow triggered into making humming sounds. He triggers this wild Rube Goldberg gizmo of an acoustic orchestra with his feet but also with the guitar itself (or so I’ve read, though I can’t really fathom how it is happening). Truly, the film makes it seem like Metheny is a T-shirt clad mad scientist or significantly crazed inventor who was left too long in a musician’s attic with a ton of technology and a boundless well of imagination.

Metheny has now made a couple of audio recordings featuring this “Orchestrion” technology. Reviewing these recordings, it was hard for me to be fully enthusiastic. While the sounds are quite wondrous, really not like anything else you’ve heard exactly because the “band” works with a level of synchronization that no could (or want to) achieve. These Orchestrion arrangements are highly structured, taking some sounds that are simple and some that are highly complex and layering them into a whole that seems like it is part classical symphony, part rock band (Frank Zappa is the closest analogue there), and part jazz fusion. Listening to this music without seeing how it is made, in the past, started out as delightful and then became somewhat numbing. The music was so “perfectly” executed that it started to sound, to me, like so much mechanization. The spontaneity of a real band was palpably missing.

Watching the music take shape around Metheny on this mad assemblage of robotic instruments, however, goes a long way to bringing the Orchestrion idea alive. The precision of the set-up is astonishing—and how it all works is no more apparent when watching this film. Metheny comes off as a fascinating lonely figure, playing amidst these in acoustic robots but still ultimately alone with his thoughts, searching for that sound he wants. There are moments when he disappears into the sound of the other instruments and there are times when he seems to simply vanish, visually, in the room itself.

(One little note I must put in here: the grand piano in the room, which is triggered by some kind of “player piano”-type technology, has a bench in front of it. You can see the keys moving as it plays, almost as if there truly was an invisible player there, his can in softly depressing the bench as his fingers from the chords and arpeggios on the instrument. Spooky.)

The filmmaking here is notable. The cameras move around wonderfully, following the guitarist, of course, but also scanning the instruments as they do their weird, independent thing, with candles and clocks let on shelves—many old-fashioned and wooden, others looking vaguely like scaffolding—all around the steampunk-ish set. Lights of various kinds move about along with the cameras, turning a potentially static set into something that seems very much alive. There is no audience for this performance, which increases you sense that this whole enterprise is a kind of magic—a little shadow box of musical imagination.

The second disc of this DVD set contains a “Making of” documentary and a filmed interview with Metheny. In the interview, Metheny describes how the Orchestrion project was inspired by his granddad’s player piano. “Orchestrions”, Metheny explains, is the name for a collection of instruments that used to be set up as a mechanical orchestra. The old orchestrions were based on pneumatic triggering, and Metheny explains that his rigs are triggering by solenoids that are spoken to through a MIDI interface—and this allows the guitarist to control the dynamics of the mechanical instruments. Metheny admits in the interview that no one really “gets” this project until they hear it, and see it. “It’s kind of funny, I know,” he says, “but it always makes people smile.” True.

Seeing The Orchestrion Project as a visual experience definitely gives you a better sense of what Pat Metheny was day-dreaming about when he cooked up this bizarre, rather wondrous idea. Is it a kind of dead-end for him, artistically? Who knows. But beyond the novelty of it, it creates a sound you aren’t going to hear anywhere else. Here’s to novelty and smiles!

RATING 6 / 10