To tell you that Pat Metheny’s latest project, Orchestrion, is the most musically achieving and challenging thing I have ever seen live is truly an understatement. Once again, Metheny has pioneered to new musical heights, this time by rewriting the definition of a solo record and tour to the extreme.
The fascination of the idea that musical instruments can be played mechanically by themselves was initially instilled in Metheny’s mind as a nine year old. Summer visits to his grandparent’s home in Wisconsin meant he got another chance to explore the old-fashioned player piano, and those experiences proved to be a heavy influence on him at a young age. Since then, the idea that pianos can play on their own has evolved from piano rolls into more advanced technology, allowing for more instruments to perform the same way. It’s this very mindset that Metheny applies to Orchestrion that sets the project apart from any of his previous musical endeavors.
To give you an idea of the magnitude of Orchestrion and how Metheny’s system works, imagine a controlled orchestra that at times can respond only to the input of one single instrument, in this case the guitar. Each instrument is programmed and synchronized to react to what is played on Metheny’s guitar or previously composed and similarly he has the ability to control which instruments are playing at a given time.
Last Tuesday was no ordinary show when Pat Metheny brought the tour through the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA to an audience that was curious to see the virtuoso in a different element.
Opening the show with a nylon stringed acoustic guitar in hand to a standing ovation, Metheny acknowledged the crowd but wasted no time as he launched himself into a lengthy instrumental that touched on several of his original pieces. His wild hair temporarily covered his face from the audiences’ view as he played in full synchronicity with the instrument. There was a point where some devout fans rejoiced in excitement when he played a somewhat hidden, though distinct, melody from his 2005 release, The Way Up, along with other subtle riffs mixed in to the arrangement.
Following another acoustic instrumental, Metheny brought out the 42 string Pikasso guitar that was designed specifically for him by Canadian luthier Linda Manzer. Just to get the abstract picture in your mind, I highly recommend you Google this unbelievable instrument. This complex guitar single handedly shows the evolution of instrumentation and the level of musicianship that Pat Metheny embodies. The sounds that he derives from the guitar are so unique, as he gets somewhat of a Chinese harp influence intertwined with acoustic melodies.
With red tarps dropped in the stage background you could tell that something was eerily looming behind Metheny, but all questions were answered as he strapped on his semi-hollow electric guitar and the wall of instruments were fully exposed. Playing the extended three song acoustic set almost made it seem that Pat Metheny was his own opening act. As he played the introduction to Orchestrion, the instruments surrounding him gradually came to life as he mechanically set the tempo with a tambourine and a light cymbal roll.
As he would cue in the instruments with the action of a foot pedal it was as if he was speaking directly to the instruments or looking to get a certain sound out of them. At times where he had his back completely turned to the audience, he was carefully listening to the robotic percussion section as he coordinated the looping for the system. Once his orchestra was functioning on its own Metheny would go off into another musical realm as he tore through the entire Orchestrion suite. The expression and energy that Metheny puts into his music is so incredible and it’s great to see an artist at this caliber still searching for more in the musical universe.
Towards the end of his main set Metheny took time to address the audience and clarify the project itself. It was really interesting to hear about his idea bringing to life the overdubbing that he originally did in the studio on one of his very first records, Bright Size Life. “I never lost interesting in those kinds of instruments and how they worked,” Metheny said of the early influences in orchestrionics. Having all the instruments on stage performing the way they would be layered brought together an element in music that I had never seen live before. It became more evident how the system reacted to his guitar playing as Metheny put forth a complete improvisation instrumental closing his main set. He walked the audience through everything from setting the tempo to how each instrument is brought into the assembly and breaking down the process seemed to clear up most of the misconceptions. The xylophones and pipes would play the same notes that he was playing on his Ibanez guitar and the two grand pianos would complement the other instruments with chord progressions and individual compositions.
As Metheny closed out the night with a double encore fans were amazed at the talent and it was great to see him refuse to end the concert. With a lengthy standing ovation, Metheny was so appreciative of his fan base that made it out for the unique experience. Words can’t fully explain Orchestrion, it’s something that you really need to see live in order to understand how his controlled orchestra operates. And it was even more of a treat to actually meet Pat Metheny in person after seeing him now for the third time. It’s unbelievable how much music has evolved with the help of technological advances and there is so much more exploration to do. I think it’s safe to say that Pat Metheny will continue to be at the forefront of that quest for many years to come.
Photos by Jimmy Katz and Dario Villa