LOCAL LIVE! In Denver, About Denver, Musically Denver!!!!
“Because it’s there.” That’s the classic answer to the question of why climb the big mountain. That’s pretty close to the explanation for Pat Metheny’s current Orchestrion tour. He’s taken the concept of the one-man-band to heights never dreamed of by buskers and carnival acts and built a giant musical machine with more instruments than The Music Man, Harold Hill, sold in his life. It appears the challenge Metheny saw was whether he could actually build this machine he had envisioned and make it work. He admitted during his Denver concert that close family members have wondered whether he’s gone crazy.
Standing in front of his contraption, he does look a little like a mad scientist at work in his laboratory. He has taken standard musical instruments and automated them. He has apparently invented a few of his own as well. His machine includes many percussion instruments with sticks and mallets that are set to hit the drum/cymbal/marimba when cued by a computer and/or his guitar and fired with a solenoid switch. His unit also features two Yamaha Disclavier pianos which are modern day, sophisticated player pianos. He also had an electric guitar and an electric bass mounted with mechanical devices that would automatically play them.
On either side of the stage and in front he had custom built devices that looked like four-necked guitars with the necks standing vertically and parallel with one another. When these gadgets were in operation, slides moved up and down on the necks with machine-like precision in a manner resembling Derek Trucks’ slide playing. But best of all, the machines bounced up and down several inches like they were dancing on the stage. Mounted high on the rack behind the stage and on either side were two banks of glass bottles arranged by size. These were activated by air blowing across the tops resulting in a bottle organ.
Many of the instruments were set up directly on the stage and Metheny wandered among them during the concert. Many more instruments were mounted in a large multi-compartment frame at the back of the stage that began the evening covered by a curtain that was removed part way through the show. Most of the compartments at the back of the stage were squares or rectangles with the instruments in the middle. The whole thing had the look of the old TV show Hollywood Squares, especially when the Muppets were the guests. See below.
Most of the automatic instruments had lights mounted in them that would flash whenever they were activated. When a dozen or more of the instruments played together and all their lights flashed, the whole contraption looked like a carnival or maybe a giant video game. The flashing lights were useful, however, for more than just a visual effect because they allowed the audience to keep track of which instruments were playing.
He explained that he had been inspired by a relative’s player piano when he was nine and had ideas since then to take the concept further. The result is a little like the laser swords from Star Wars that seem to be a combination of advanced and ancient technology. During the concert he explained that listening to a player piano can make you want to kill yourself after about five minutes because they have no dynamics. He’s solved that problem with his machine which comes much closer to emulating human players than the old player pianos ever could.
He began the show with a couple solo guitar pieces to build the anticipation of when the machine might start coming to life. One of the early tunes was “Unity Village” from Bright Size Life, his first album from 1975. By the third tune, he introduced a couple of the percussion instruments keeping a simple beat. It wasn’t long, though, before he unveiled the entire apparatus and put the whole thing in motion. At that point in the concert, he launched into the music from his current album, Orchestrion, recorded with his invention. That album runs less than an hour and Metheny always plays much longer than that in concert. (In this case, two hours.) After he completed the Orchestrion material, he moved back to some of his earlier work, generally from the Pat Metheny Group, finishing with “Stranger in Town” from We Live Here.
Overall, the music from Orchestrion and most of the rest of the music he performed in Denver had the sound of the Pat Metheny Group. Over the years, Metheny has recorded dozens of albums, only about half with his group. The solo albums have covered a vast stretch of musical territory, from quiet solo guitar albums to challenging avant-garde jazz with and/or inspired by Ornette Coleman to lush orchestral works. The Pat Metheny Group’s music has evolved over the years, but it has retained a readily identifiable sound that includes beautiful, soaring melodies that are at once accessible and musically complex. The music on Orchestrion and on the current tour fits most closely with the Pat Metheny Group sound. Anyone just listening and not seeing how the music is being created would assume the sounds were coming from an entire band of five to seven musicians. Still, it sometimes could sound a little mechanical and not quite as spontaneous and free as music created by a stage full of improvising jazz musicians.
Whatever the ultimate assessment of Metheny’s experiment, whether the conclusion is that this is merely a gimmick, a musical dead-end or the start of something new, it is impossible to deny that this concept is completely unique in the extent and complexity of automated music making. It is also obviously highly creative and comes from a musician who clearly is never satisfied with the status quo and continues to search for something new. And for that, he deserves some admiration. Not just for the machine, but also because he’s finally moved away from the blue and white stripped shirt he seemed to wear for several decades and is now wearing a solid blue shirt in concert.