One Man Grand

Pat Metheny's robot-jazz 'orchestrion' project


Pat Metheny is jazz’s eternal teenager, forever fiddling with knobs and effects, playing as many noodling notes as possible, and tonight, on Easter Sunday, calling at 11:30pm to talk about his new project, the musical equivalent of the ultimate remote-control car.

One forgives Metheny, and not just for calling so late. The musical remote-control car he’s been playing with—called an “orchestrion”—is something worth getting excited about. Think of a player piano. Then think of a whole collection of drums, vibes, bells and homemade noise-making contraptions. Then imagine that these dozens of instruments, each creating simultaneous and unique sounds, are controlled by just one person in the center of the stage through his electric guitar.

Metheny does not use the word “dude,” but it’s implied.

“People are going really crazy,” the 17-time Grammy winner says, having just returned from a tour of Europe with the orchestrion. “I’ve never gotten a reaction like that. It’s something very unusual. But then again, there’s never really been a concert like this.”

There have, however, been orchestrions, albeit about a hundred years ago. If you’re lucky, you’ve seen one at a museum. Perhaps you’ve seen a smaller scale orchestrion in the center of a carousel. As outgrowths of player pianos, they were “the first way a composer could present their music without actually being in the room,” says Metheny, adding that no real recordings exist of early orchestrions. “There didn’t need to be a recording of them, because they were the recording!”

Metheny’s interest in orchestrions brimmed for years until he discovered that sufficient technology existed to dictate the force of each note played and to send signals to multiple instruments from one control center. Solenoids—those magnetic coils that trigger pinball flippers—strike each separate instrument, reacting to Metheny’s guitar pick and the places where his fingers fret the strings. It sounds crazy. It is crazy.

“It’s a match of the 19th century and the 21st century,” Metheny laughs. “It’s sort of like we skipped the 20th century. My experience in the areas of synths and cords and wires and knobs—I’ve grown up with all that stuff. It’s not a big deal for me to work with those elements in a musical way. But to have an output system that’s acoustic in nature, it’s fantastic. It’s the best of both worlds to me.”

A measure of his success is that the recording of this project, Orchestrion, sounds almost exactly like a regular Pat Metheny album. There is no trace of novelty or gimmick in the music; it’s layered with actual improvisation without being pre-programmed. Whether or not it’s your thing, Metheny says, “it does get people talking, there’s no question about it. It challenges a lot of people.”

In what way? “For a lot of people, it’s really about their fear of technology or their fear of something breaking,” says Metheny. “They say, ‘Aren’t you afraid it’s gonna break?’ Well, I’m a guitar player. A string could break at any minute, there’s nothing to stop it from happening. I have to be prepared for that moment. This is like that too.”

Metheny continues. “The next question might be, ‘Aren’t you afraid that you’re gonna lose the interaction?’ Well, you know, couldn’t you ask that of anybody who plays a solo concert? Yeah, it’s just you. It’s up to you to make sure it’s interesting and cool. Or that same person might say, ‘Well, aren’t you replacing other musicians?’ Well, when Walt Disney made Bambi, did a Hollywood deer lose a job? No! It’s a different form, it’s a completely different way of doing things.”

This tour’s set list—Metheny’s calling late because he’s been loading the entire orchestrion into a trailer all day—presents Orchestrion tracks with reworked arrangements of classic material. And along with performing for couples on dates, Metheny looks forward on this tour to finally meeting the “orchestrion nuts” spread out all over the country that he’s been getting emails from.

“Since the album came out, I’ve heard from the other 23 people in the world who are building instruments like this,” he says. “None of these guys know each other. They don’t even know that other people are doing it. So I’ve become a sort of clearinghouse for all these wacky people out there who are doing amazing, interesting things.”

Pat Metheny brings his ‘Orchestrion’ tour to town on Sunday, April 25, at the Napa Valley Opera House (‘One of my favorite places to play in the world,’ he says). 1030 Main St., Napa. 7pm. $55&–$75. 707.226.7372.