In many ways, Pat Metheny's new Orchestrion project is entirely of a piece with his earlier work—even if it finds the inventive guitarist sharing the stage and the studio with an array of electromechanical robots.
“It's just kind of a regular thing,” says the veteran improviser in a late-night phone call from his tour bus, somewhere between Manhattan and upstate New York. “A very odd regular thing.”
Metheny can trace the roots of his latest obsession to his earliest exposure to music: as a kid visiting relatives in Wisconsin, where he loved to fool around with his grandfather's player piano.
“That instrument, to me, represented two things that had a very particular flavour,” he explains. “The distant past, because it was sort of an antique, but also there was something kind of science fiction about the fact that it was playing by itself. That just had an impact on me. And of course I went off in completely other directions, but I never forgot that.”
Those other directions have always had something of a technological bent. Metheny was an early adopter of the guitar synthesizer, and in conjunction with Canadian luthier Linda Manzer, he's designed a variety of innovative fretless, harp, and sitar guitars.
With the Orchestrion, however, he's outdone himself. Inspired by the mechanical orchestras of the Victorian era (and pictured on the cover of his Orchestrion CD), Metheny's new “band” includes an array of solenoid-controlled percussion devices, a pair of pneumatic bottle organs that look like something from an apothecary's shop, a Yamaha Disklavier piano, and a variety of remote-controlled guitars, ranging from relatively conventional units to several of inventor Eric Singer's futuristic GuitarBots.
Remarkably, the music that Metheny makes on Orchestrion doesn't sound the least bit mechanical. In fact, the new disc could easily be mistaken for a Pat Metheny Band release, featuring as it does the long, flowing melodies, intricate rhythms, and slightly bittersweet harmonies that have long featured in the guitarist's ensemble work.
So, given that Metheny's excellent band can play just about anything its leader requires, why go to the trouble and expense of building a robot orchestra?
That's a question Metheny counters with one of his own.
“What's your favourite animated movie?” he asks. “Fantasia? Well, this [saying Orchestrion could have been made by human musicians] is a little bit like somebody watching Fantasia and saying, ”˜I really, really like that movie—but get a real mouse.' Or say somebody said Bambi was their favourite movie. Okay, did a real deer lose a job? Did a Hollywood deer not get a call because they made Bambi as an animation?
“To me, the comparison to animation resonates with what I see this as,” he adds. “I would not have gotten to these results under any other circumstances—and that's particularly true live.”
Metheny notes that his Orchestrion concerts tend to run for two-and-a-half hours; obviously, the intricately composed music from the CD takes up only part of that time. Otherwise, he's exploring his “band” as a canvas for improvisation, having spent months programming the instruments so that they're all controllable, on a spur-of-the-moment basis, from his MIDI–equipped guitar.
“It's real open-ended and, honestly, I'm still discovering it as I go along,” he says. “I've now done about 45 concerts, and it's an unfolding process. It's been really fascinating, really interesting, and a lot of fun.”
The guitarist has also come up with one more reason to see his show—and it's not one you might expect.
“I think it's probably a great date night,” he says, laughing. “It'll certainly give you a lot to talk about after the concert.”
Pat Metheny brings his Orchestrion project to the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday (May 1).