Pat Metheny and the Orchestrion
Acclaimed jazz guitarist Pat Metheny plugs into the Orchestrion, a massive instrument based on the old player piano orchestrations of yore.
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In a decomissioned church in Brooklyn, an assemblage of instruments sits arrayed along a constructed wall about 25 feet long and 12 feet high. There are drums, guitars, marimbas, vibes, piano and more. Standing in the middle is guitarist Pat Metheny.
In a mix of antique concepts and computer technology, Metheny has designed his own Orchestrion.
"Orchestrions were essentially the instruments that followed the player piano in sophistication. Meaning, besides there being just a piano, there was often a drum or two, a couple of cymbals, maybe a xylophone and various other instruments tethered to the piano roll mechanism. Those were called Orchestrions. It was the first time that a composer or performer could offer their music without actually being in the room."
Metheny's Orchestrion is bigger; it has more instruments and is triggered by a combination of computers and his guitar. He says creating an Orchestrion is something he's wanted to do since he was a child in Missouri, messing around with his grandfather's player piano.
"I was only about eight," he recalls. "Cousin Tommy would pump one pedal, and we would try every roll there was."
While the original Orchestrions were mechanical and played music that sounded a bit corny, Metheny's sounds like the Pat Metheny Group.
"I was outside the room and I heard music playing," said David Oaks, Metheny's long time technical engineer. "And I knew it was Pat, but I couldn't think of what record it was from. So, I walk in to hear what record it was from, and it was all of the instruments playing. It actually sounded like real people, all of a sudden."
Metheny's Orchestrion doesn't sound like the ones found at carnivals, or the grand ones found in Europe. His has guitars that are strummed, basses that are plucked, and full sets of marimba and vibes. Along a set of shelves are jugs filled to different levels with water, serving as an organ.
Although a similar, even more sophisticated effect could be achieved by using computers and samplers, Metheny's Orchestrion provides a live, organic experience. He insists that is not out to replace his band. For one, it's too expensive.
"This is probably the most difficult touring thing we will have ever done," said Metheny. "One of the joke-y things is, 'well, it will be just you; you're going to be saving all of that money on hotel rooms and all of that.' This is the most expensive presentation that I have ever done, by a considerable margin. I'll be happy to break even on this whole deal."
Metheny says that this is much deeper than making money while touring. "This is a direct imprint of how I hear things; not only in terms of the guitar, but compositionally, the way the instruments are played together ... this is like a look into my brain, in a way."
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