Metheny Exhibits Potential of the Orchestrion

Photo: Conducting an Orchestrion. At Zellerbach Hall on Saturday, Pat Metheny wowed the audience with his virtuostic guitar playing and impressive contraption, the Orchestrion.
JImmy Katz/Courtesy
Conducting an Orchestrion. At Zellerbach Hall on Saturday, Pat Metheny wowed the audience with his virtuostic guitar playing and impressive contraption, the Orchestrion.

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Pat Metheny took a bow onstage and humbly redirected the audience's attention to his accompanying musician: a robotic, automated patchwork of guitar-bots, jerking machines, flashing synchronized lights and a host of other electro-acoustic instruments. Now there's a slap in the face to jazz purists.

Although the music paled in comparison to the machinery, Metheny's technological exploration was nonetheless admirable. 20 minutes into the show put on by Cal Performances, the guitarist unveiled his Orchestrion, a colossal 14-foot-high, 35-foot-wide and eight-and-a-half ton apparatus that looked like the deranged engine of some spacecraft.

Like a cyborg hardwired to a circuit board, Metheny was able to activate a range of instruments strapped to the large Orchestrion tower by using his guitar as the matrix point. Metheny was a virtual one-man jazz band, celebrating the machination of actual musicians into something he could control on his own terms.

But what made the Orchestrion even more impressive was that it functioned mechanically rather than digitally. He was performing the music in real-time, live, with the instruments responding to what he was playing.

Metheny explained that the Orchestrion derives from the player piano, common in the early 20th century. Inspired by the pump pedals used to motorize the instrument, he wanted to create something that would enable him to play guitar with his feet. Hiring a group of technicians to execute his vision of dynamically rich electro-acoustic devices, Metheny realized his dream by placing electro-magnets called solenoids inside his guitar.

Certain performances invite you to close your eyes to fully enjoy the mood, but all the whirling knobs and motion of the Orchestrion demanded full attention. He transformed Zellerbach Hall into a science symposium, showing off his gizmos, gadgets and contraptions to an incredulous audience, wide-eyed with wonderment. With isolated parts of drum-kits and guitars strapped in harnesses evocative of S&M leather, Metheny was proving a point amidst this scientific madness: All of these constituent parts could be miraculously activated with the pluck of a string.

Metheny's technical prowess as a guitar player was astonishing-he played with whizzing, yet controlled speed. But the idea of the Orchestrion was much more entertaining than the music itself. The Orchestrion had the contraptions of a Disneyland theme ride, but unfortunately the Disneyland soundtrack came along with it. In showing off his new toy, Metheny presented a somewhat masturbatory performance. By the time he played the fourth part of his suite from his newest album Orchestrion, hearing his math-rock oriented solos over an automated snare became tiring. The realization hit hard that this concert was a fantastic spectacle as opposed to a fantastic performance of music.

A common misconception is that the genre of jazz precludes technological innovation, but its history proves otherwise. Miles Davis looped a sample of horns in the post-production phase of Bitches Brew; Herbie Hancock embraced the electric Rhodes piano with his band the Head Hunters. Jazz itself is fundamentally a springboard for exploration. Instead of disconnecting the human experience involved in music, Metheny sees the Orchestrion as a potentially new type of interface to investigate humanity in relation to technological forces.

Conduct an orchestral experiment with Justin at [email protected]

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