By Philip Booth
Pat Metheny is nothing if not an inveterate musical explorer.
The accomplished guitarist and composer, best known for his work with the Pat Metheny Group, has 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.
Then comes his recently released Orchestrion.
Metheny uses his six-string and a modern orchestrion, a high-tech device that controls 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, multitextured 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 e-mail questions.
Do you view your orchestrion as being linked to your memories of your grandfather's player piano and the old-style orchestrions you have seen?
Yes, the genesis of this project comes from my grandfather's basement. 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. . . . 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. Over the past several years I've gone to a number of different inventor guys to build, essentially, this orchestra that you hear.
Can you describe 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 whatever) the instruments wait for a MIDI signal, hear it, and perform a mechanical rendering of . . . that signal using a process that converts MIDI into physical motion.
Any concerns that the technology 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. . . . 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.