Pat Metheny's Orchestrion

So, I'm starting off this blog on agile topics with a little musical diversion. Starting off, you might start the short video for an impression of what I am talking about.

You could always say that what Jazz musicians are learning and doing, namely improvising across unheard of scales and quirky chords and scale and chord progressions, is learning to be agile. But to hell with that metaphor. (But then again - the more I think of the metaphor, the more I am tempted to stick to it: Again it's not magic to improvise, but lots of practice and skills (craftsmanship) and lots of just doing things until you're good at it - with enormous patience). 

In the case of Pat Metheny, we are talking about one of the absolute masters of Jazz Improvisation, not only on the guitar(s) but in the general field of modern jazz since the mid 70s. He is perfect in playing classic jazz, post bop improvisation and all the classic stuff but more than that, he brought new styles into jazz and helped keeping jazz alive for some decades now by doing where jazz is best at: Taking up new flavors and styles and ever more broaden the meaning of jazz. Pat Metheny is one of the guys who kept Jazz from starting to smell.

Now, Pat Metheny's style is not embraced by everybody and some critics might even say that some of his stuff is a bit too "kitschig" for them, but as for me: I don't care. I remember certain holiday trips with nothing else on the walkman or car CD player than Pat's newest album and I am afraid (for my family too) that I spent hours and hours singing along to those, sometimes loud and in the wrong key, of course.

Especially live, Pat's performance is the closest experience to a perfect live rendition I have ever seen. Being a close friend to 'First Take' Jaco Pastorius (RIP) in his youth, he sure has some entertainer blood in his veins, too.

The last and coming weeks, Pat is touring the world with his Orchestrion project. Beginning last autumn he started to write a little about it, to promote his new album and tour. From what he wrote, I guess (and he says), no one could really know what he's up to. What he did was to build a whole homunculus-like machine, which should be the band for his new project. The Orchestrion machine would be controlled by him and his guitar as well as some sequencers (I guess ableton live from Berlin). For a song or two, this sounds like a funny idea, but as a fully worthwhile musical project of one of the geniuses of our time - who knows?

I wouldn't write about it if it were a failure, so yes: It is an incredible achievement what Pat did here. In February the album was released and just sounds like any other Pat Metheny album, closer to his band than his trio or solo recordings.

On that album some more things were revealed on how he did that. The Orchestrion was build by some professional instrument builders - mainly at LEMUR - concentrating on acoustic instrument being controlled by MIDI. That explains for the natural, unsynthetic sound of the orchestrion: We are dealing with actual, acoustic instruments, like drums, bass, the Yamaha Disklavier, some bells, glass bottles as whistles amongst others.

Throughout the article there are some pictures to only get a small glimpse of the orchestrion.

So, let me switch to the live performance now. I watched the concert at the Philharmonie Berlin on 2 March 2010.

The concert started of like any other Pat solo concert, him grabbing one of his gorgeous Linda Manzer guitars, this time a baritone guitar w/ nylon strings. For everybody never having been to a Pat concert this already is a moment of magic (for me too, after all these concerts I've seen). When he sits down and starts plucking the strings, with the first tone of the guitar, lots of Pat's qualities come to a full shine: The simple sound of the nylon string guitar is so much larger than life, you really wonder how he does it. And, no, it's not easy. Lots of things play together here. Yes, he has a very unique styla and technique of playing the guitar (picking the nylon string w/ a plectrum for instance. But adding to that, how he mics and amplifies and processes the guitar is so perfect and a science in itself. So, why doesn't he just do it any other way? Because he is a perfect musician and entertainer. he doesn't only want to play on the highest level, but he wants every note he's playing to be an experience for the listener (fur us: the client!). So he does not rest until the guitar sounds better than any guitar could ever sound live and direct in my own 4 walls. He did this all the time, when he reinvented the electric guitar sound on stage by putting up two amps, combined with heavy effects for just getting  a special spacial distribution in the concert room, when he started playing the guitar synth and did not take up to playing all the voices available but just came up with that one perfect, trumpet like sound on the pre-Midi Roland guitar synth that he still uses until today, etc.

I am really sorry and embarrassed to sound like a fan boy, but the guy simply is that good.
So, next he played a solo impro on the steel string guitar and then on his famous Pikasso guitar, all made by Linda Manzer.

All the time you saw some strange instruments standing around on stage. But you couldn't really make out what it is. What we didn't know yet: The main part of the Orchstrion was covered by a red cloth. So what we saw was not the complete Orchestrion.

As a next song, he started an improvisation again, kinda bluesy and I really didn't like it at first because it really sounded like a cliche and I thought about the worse times of Louis Armstrong. But then, something funny happened. Small parts of the Orchestrion started moving and adding to the music. Namely Mr. Fingers, a small finger cymbal and a high hat just giving a nice small beat for Pat to groove to. 

Each beat of any instrument was accompanied by a little LED flash coming up, so that you couldn't only hear what's happening, but also see. This would become an important feature of the Orchestrion later on.

A soon as the instruments started playing a funny thing happened with the audience: Everybody started smiling mildly as this was such a sensation. And here the magic starts. This is actually easy. Instead of triggering a beat box or a synth by midi, all that happened was that little instruments driven by little solenoids.

Now imagine what happened one or two songs later when the red cloth was taken off and the whole Orchestrion was revealed, something like that was to be seen on stage now:

Without further ado, Pat now started to pay his Orchestrion suite as can be heard on his new CD. And this moment was simply incredible, Everybody, EVERYBODY in the audience now had just a big kid smile in his face and simply no one could believe what's going on. As you can hear on the CD the suite starts with quite a modern and complex piece of fusion jazz with all kinds of complex harmony behind it. It's not just just that it sounded like on CD, no it sounded really alive and not at all as replayed by a sequencer with some guy doing live guitar to it. This was MUSIC. Live music.

So again, Pat is not stupid and a perfect entertainer and a perfect musician at the same time. So every piece of what he did here was so elaborate. The blinking LEDs added to that impression as much as the concept that he could influence everything any instrument played by controlling all the instruments loops with the midi signals from his guitar. Every instrument just looked terrific. The stage is dominated by a large drum rack in the background where the individual instruments are not simply put together but separated on the whole wall. On the rights side you see a bass being plucked, the notes of the bass triggering a nice lamp changing her colors according to the pitch of the bass note (Another optical effect which makes it easier to resolve what's going on. And that's another thing that's going on - it all looks so incredible that your mind always tries to solve just how it works. A little explanation at the end).

The front of the stage is dominated by two cupboards full of tuned glass bottles which are used as kind of organ pipes. (Incredible sound). You have some strane 8 pieces of guitar strings being manipulated by other selenoid triggered rotors, sounding a bit like an 8 voice choir. A whole lot of little percussion gimmicks around the stage cater for lts of diversion, fun and diversity in the sound. And so on and so on.

As music is hard to describe I'll add some links to the videos available and maybe, you can try to grasp a little of the magic and how it works.

The end of the show consisted of some tunes where Pat started with a blank piece of paper - nothing at all - and built complex songs by playing in all the instruments' loops liva and alone on stage. So yes, he could play al those songs on stage on his own, given time to enter the loops, if he wanted (Which he doesn't, as some of the musical pieces are just too complex to do that in short time).

What became clear to me was that his guitar can trigger any of the instruments. Given the nature of the instruments there are two ways to trigger them. Instruments like guitar and piano can only be triggered one at a time as the whole fretboard of the guitar is used to play whatever needs to be played.

For the drums, he uses certain fretboard positions (or pitches or notes) for a single instrument of the drum set, say the low E string is the bass drum, the G in the middle of the guitar a snare drum etc. So, he can play quite complex rhythms at once on his guitar. 

He does that by entering loop after loop and instrument after instrument for a certain harmonic turnaround. That's impressive enough and: try this at home just for guitar. You must be incredibly precise for such a load of instruments to still sound good and on point.

But then, another thing seems to happen, which is that when dynamics change, it seems to me that parts of the patterns of the loops are changing too. So when the whole piece gets louder, obviously there are some changes in what the loops play back. And this is really what makes the trick of this being a musical experience rather than a bunch well played loops.

The crazy thing about this is that Pat does this again so perfectly and with such imagination that you can not believe that he able to still have the overview of this complex musical monster on stage and at the same time control it. And again, this all looks so flaw- and effortless that I am still wondering today, how many time of his life Pat devoted to the concept of the Orchestrion and then to practicing with it to come to that level of perfection.

So, coming back to the unloved metaphor of jazz and agile, this performance just again makes clear to me how hard it is and how much effort and devotion and phantasy and love and care you have to put into something like this to make things seem effortless in all that diversity. Part of this is to really understand the whole idea and history of Orchestrions from the last century all through the Yamaha Disklavier and making best of what's available today. And only all of this together leads to the effect of grown up people sitting in the Philharmonie with a constant smile on their face - just likes kids - during the whole performance. 

I don't get it at all if anything experienced comes across in this article, so tell me about it.

Thanks for your time,


All pictures copyright Pat Metheny and Lemur
blog comments powered by Disqus