Alone on stage with a lot of strange instruments

HE WAS standing there alone playing guitar in front of a wall assembled from metal cages with chained drums, percussion and other music-making instruments. There were also two guitars in a wooden box and on the sides a piano as well as bottles with differing levels of liquid in wooden boxes. While there was only one man on stage, he was making the amazing sound of an entire orchestra. It was Pat Metheny, renowned jazz guitarist and composer, who came to Bratislava on February 26 to introduce his Orchestrion project.

Pat Metheny in front of his Orchestrion in Bratislava.Pat Metheny in front of his Orchestrion in Bratislava. (Source: SME)

HE WAS standing there alone playing guitar in front of a wall assembled from metal cages with chained drums, percussion and other music-making instruments. There were also two guitars in a wooden box and on the sides a piano as well as bottles with differing levels of liquid in wooden boxes. While there was only one man on stage, he was making the amazing sound of an entire orchestra. It was Pat Metheny, renowned jazz guitarist and composer, who came to Bratislava on February 26 to introduce his Orchestrion project.

“You guys probably think I am very strange,” said Metheny to the audience after the first part of his concert. “And you’re right. But this whole project and all the instruments you see up here are a dream of mine as a nine-year old boy. My grandfather had a player piano in his basement, one of those old mechanical pianos, and I loved it. Always I was curious about it and … I had an idea to look at it in my own personal way. This is a sort of what is happening here tonight.”

The Orchestrion project represents a conceptual direction that merges an idea from the late 19th and early 20th centuries with technologies from today to create a new, open-ended platform for musical composition, improvisation and performance, Metheny writes on his website. ‘Orchestrionics’ is the term he uses to describe the method of developing ensemble-oriented music using acoustic and acousto-electric musical instruments that are mechanically controlled in a variety of ways, using solenoids and pneumatics.

With a guitar, pen or keyboard he is able to create a detailed compositional environment or a spontaneously developing improvisation, with the pieces performed on this particular evening leaning toward the compositional side of the spectrum. On top of these layers of acoustic sound, Metheny added his conventional electric guitar playing as an improvised component.

But as he said, he has tried writing about it, talking about it and telling people about it and nobody really understands what he is talking about until they hear it and see it.

Metheny started the concert in Bratislava with just his solo guitar music in front of a red curtain performing songs from his recent albums. He also played his 42-string Pikasso guitar, a custom-made harp guitar. This chamber music was just the intro and only afterwards did the entire Orchestrion emerge from behind the curtain. And only then did the real whirlpool of music begin with drumsticks automatically striking drums, keyboards being pressed without fingers, and other instruments playing ‘alone’ like in a haunted house.

“Everybody wants to know how this works,” said Metheny to the audience. “It’s very hard to explain. I talked to few journalists before the concert and it took me two hours to explain it. It is really complicated and it sort of doesn’t matter.”

And he is right. It is ‘what it is’. It does not matter how Metheny is making the whole Orchestrion play the music he wants it to, or how is it possible that he can improvise along with this whole mechanical music machine.

Metheny has not replaced live musicians to save on wages because of the economic crisis. He is fulfilling his dream and he says he has never really understood why the idea of ‘player instruments’ or mechanical instruments has disappeared. It is impossible to say whether his Orchestrion plays better or worse than live musicians – it just plays differently.

Metheny played cuts from his album Orchestrion released at the end of January as well as from his earlier recordings which showed off all the musical and visual facets of his Orchestrion. As the instruments were playing, apart from the sounds and light they were producing, it was also pleasure to watch the movements of the various instruments of his Orchestrion, especially the bottle organs.

Metheny showed again that he is an exceptional musician and that after performing for decades in his music career he still receives immense pleasure playing music as well as playing with it. It did not matter if no one understood how his Orchestrion worked. Metheny gave Bratislava more than two hours of beautiful and energising music and demonstrated that it is worth following one’sdreams.


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