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Music writing

Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion

interior-metheny This article appeared in the Guardian on January 8, 2010.

The jazz band at Legacy Studios in Manhattan is swinging: piano, vibes, bass, two guitars, percussion and drums in fast, syncopated flow. It’s playing an effortlessly melodic piece that could only have been written by Pat Metheny. This much is obvious in the memorable hook and dazzling harmony, but also because he is the only musician in the room. The instruments are playing themselves.

The vibraphone belongs to Metheny’s old friend and collaborator Gary Burton, but the mallets are being operated by robots, controlled by computers in the next room. The kit, on loan from legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, has been deconstructed and strung on wires from a steel frame. Each cymbal or snare has its own stick, brush and beater.

Wandering around as the music plays – we are “the first civilians to see this” – is a thrilling, disorienting experience. The wind section is comprised of bottles and gallon jugs, tuned by size and water level, which light up as air blows across their mouths. Congas rap suddenly into life. Clamps slide down the fretboard of the electric bass as an invisible right hand plucks the strings.

Metheny is not even playing his guitar. He stands at the back with a grin on his face, ginger curls tumbling out of a backwards New York Yankees cap. Although he’s 55-years-old, he looks like a little kid, lost in his favourite hobby. His childish wonder is infectious. “If I look tired, it’s because I’ve been sleeping two hours a night for six weeks, trying to get stuff done,” he says. He is evidently wide awake.

He calls his new toy the Orchestrion. Metheny has written and recorded an album, inspired by this fresh musical context of his own making. Fans can buy tickets to see his robotic ensemble for themselves on tour. But it’s also evidently an obsession, something he does because he can. “Why would I do this? I’m lucky enough to play with the best musicians in the world,” he says. “Well, it’s gotten me to some notes that I couldn’t have gotten to otherwise. It’s opened up a third wave of opportunity.”

Metheny was a prodigy, jamming with top flight bands passing through Kansas City before his voice broke, then dropping out of university to teach at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston while he was still in his teens. Throughout his career, he has displayed a gift for writing accessible, commercially successful music, as well as a determination to propel jazz forwards through unexpected collaborations.

The Pat Metheny Group has been filling arenas since the early 1980s by marrying tunes you can hum on the way home to astonishing, virtuoso improvisation. On the side, Metheny has recorded with an array of fellow travellers, from David Bowie to Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, Roy Haynes, Joni Mitchell, and most recently pianist Brad Melhdau. He is the only artist to win a Grammy ten years in a row.

From his early adoption of the Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer onwards, he has been fascinated by the way technological advances can engender musical mutations. But for all his interest in samplers, sequencers and software, he’s never been entirely comfortable with the end result.

“I’ve always had a problem with electronic sound,” Metheny says. “When a whole bunch of sounds are jammed into one set of speakers, that’s not the way I hear it. I’ve been searching for some kind of acoustic expression of ideas… a means of getting something in the air moving.”

The Orchestrion reconciles his love of old-fashioned, unamplified live performance with his restless urge to innovate. It’s also born of a feeling that jazz has become concerned with “refinement at best, historical retrenchment and revisionism at worst” – a little too staid and predictable. “Jazz guys were always the guys fucking with things, and I feel like it hasn’t been like that for a while,” he says.

Growing up, he spent summers with his grandparents in Wisconsin. In their basement, they had a player piano, with a box of paper rolls punched full of holes, that performed popular old time songs as Metheny and his cousins pumped the pedals.

These mechanical contraptions, developed in the late 19th century, were once ubiquitous in parlours, restaurants and dancehalls. Orchestrions, which attach wind instruments to a similar mechanism, were the next evolutionary step. Because they were driven by compressed air, they had no dynamic range. Conlon Nancarrow composed daring, avant-garde music for player pianos, too fast for two hands to perform, but it was hammered out at a relentless fortissimo, with no delicacy of touch.

The modern version solves this problem using electromagnetic coils called solenoids, which can open and close with varying degrees of velocity. It is the work of several inventors, chief among them Eric Singer of the League Of Electronic Musical Urban Robots. “Most of what you’re hearing is either vacuum cleaners or garage door openers,” Metheny says. As the Orchestrion tackles one of his new compositions, it’s amazing how un-mechanical, indeed how alive it sounds.

With his guitar as a trigger device, he recorded all the instrumental parts on his own, encoding them as MIDI signals to be sent to the piano, vibraphone, and so on. The result is Metheny squared, or cubed, truly the Pat Metheny Group: a familiar dish of lyrical blues and intricate jazz fusion, dominated by his songlike guitar lines. “It can do some really weird, far-out stuff. I’ll get to that,” he says. “I didn’t want to start with show-off music. But I didn’t worry ‘can some guy play this?’ That wasn’t a concern.”

One man bands have come a long way from the overburdened family entertainer with crash cymbals between his knees, a banjo, a mouth organ and a kick drum strapped to his back. Artists like Final Fantasy, Andrew Bird, Imogen Heap and Joseph Arthur build layer upon layer at their gigs, creating a virtual ensemble with loops and pedals. Panda Bear conjures a celestial choir from his laptop. But none of these acts perform using multiple acoustic instruments at the same time. The logistical nightmare Metheny has created for himself is unique.

In February, he heads out on tour across Europe. Using software called Ableton Live, he will send the pre-programmed accompaniment off on different paths each night, essentially improvising with himself. “It’s fun,” he says. “How much fun it’s going to be in Poland when everything’s breaking, I don’t know.”

At this point, we relocate to the producer’s booth to hear a second track, so we can watch the cursor scroll across two computer screens: one showing the sound waves of Metheny’s guitar part, played live, the other displaying the written score for everything else.

The song ends with a drone, blown across the bottle tops. Metheny hits the space bar repeatedly but the noise won’t stop. “They’ve got a mind of their own,” says Joe the studio engineer, and the guitarist grins again, like a precocious eight-year-old bringing history to life in his granddad’s basement.