Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion Project

Kathy and I attended the Pat Metheny show in Austin last night. We’d never gotten to see him before, and were familiar with very little of his music, but I was crazy to see this show once Barry Brake brought it to our attention. Why? The Orchestrion!

What is the Orchestrion? It’s a huge assemblage of instruments played by mechanical means — a player piano taken to crazy extremes. I’ve long been interested in non-traditional instruments and especially ones that are driven by electronics and machines, so this show was irresistible to me.

The performance was amazing. Metheny’s virtuosity on a guitar, both the normal version and the various “enhanced” ones he played over the course of the evening, was remarkable. The mechanical instruments were varied, beautiful, and fascinating, and a pleasure to watch and try to figure out how he controlled them. The only downside? It turns out that neither of us particularly like Metheny’s music.

But first things first. The instruments — my goodness, the instruments! He opened with a hihat with two solenoid-driven drumsticks playing it, as well as a set of finger cymbals mounted on a similar actuator. He also had some very cool four-stringed instruments with robot “fingers” that rolled rapidly up and down the strings and revolving plectrums that set the strings vibrating. There was a big marimba on each side of the stage with a mallet for every bar that played under computer control as well.

After a few pieces with these instruments, he pulled up a curtain to reveal the rest of the Orchestrion. My first impression was that some enterprising high school biology student had taken a scalpel to Neal Peart’s drum kit, carefully dissected it, and then neatly pinned all its component bits to the wall. There was also a cabinet filled with jars containing varying amounts of water to produce different pitches when air was blown across the top, a bass and guitar that looked like they had been assimilated by the Borg, and a big collection of hand percussion being shaken by mechanical poltergeists. When they all got going at once (which they often did), it made for some wonderful mechanical musical madness!

Unfortunately, Metheny plays a flavor of music that, while technically amazing and probably fascinating to modern Jazz fans, didn’t do much for either of us. Melodies were rare, harmonic progressions often seemed a bit directionless, and we were left feeling a bit adrift in a sea of high-speed improvisations. We were, however, clearly in the minority, as the crowd was hugely enthusiastic and provided several standing ovations over the course of the evening.

But in spite of that, we found the show fascinating, enjoyed getting to see the Paramount for the first time, and had a great evening together.