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Jazz Guitarist Pat Metheny Talks About His Orchestrion

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Aired 4/19/10

World renown jazz guitarist Pat Metheny has a new project involving an orchestra. What's so unusual about that? The orchestra is robotic. Pat Metheny will join us to talk about the Orchestrion project.

Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny surrounded by his Orchestrion project.
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Above: Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny surrounded by his Orchestrion project.

Pat Metheny plays the historic Spreckels Theater in downtown San Diego on Wednesday, April 21st.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, when not touring or recording with his own Pat Metheny Group, is known for his great collaborations with other musicians. He's made music with artists as diverse as Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell and David Bowie. But this time, Pat Metheny is touring with his most unusual musical partner: himself, in the guise of a roomful of robotically-activated musical instruments. It's a show that combines real-time musical experience with high-tech strategy. Pat Metheny is bringing his “Orchestrian” concert to the Spreckels Theater this week. He joins us on the phone to talk about it. Good morning, Pat.

PAT METHENY (Musician): How you doing, Maureen?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing just great. Thank you for talking with us.

METHENY: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Now this project and your latest album is called, as I say, “Orchestrian.” But that’s a title that also refers to a real machine that existed in the late 19th century. So what was that orchestrian?

METHENY: Well, there was a real interesting period in kind of the development of, you know, I guess we could say recording technology, that was, in fact, the early player pianos which, you know, everybody has seen in various pizza parlors and everywhere else around the world.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

METHENY: And it was really – those instruments were the first time that a composer or a performer could offer their music to an audience without actually being in the room. And they had a pretty great run for 30 or 40 years, from the late 1800s up until the early 1920s when somebody came up with the idea of actually recording audio. And, really, from that moment, piano players started to fade away and the whole idea of piano rolls. So in order to kind of up their value and their audience appeal, various inventors started adding other instruments to a player piano like a bass drum or a cymbal or a xylophone or something like that, still tethered to the piano roll that made the piano keys move, and those instruments were called orchestrions.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

METHENY: And, you know, it was quite a thing. I mean, you know, having done a lot of research in this stuff over the years, I mean, there was one year that they made 10,000 orchestrions at a plant in Leipzig, Germany. I mean, it was quite big business and it really, over a period of about five years, just kind of went away.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you say, those mechanical orchestras were kind of tethered to that piano roll and because of that they had real limitations. How is your orchestrion different?

METHENY: Well, it’s different, first of all, because I can play with dynamics. All those early instruments were played all at one volume and if you’ve ever heard a calliope or a player piano for any period of time, you can listen for about five minutes and then you want to basically go kill yourself because it’s just sort of like this one kind of monotone, monotonous, loud, fairly obnoxious kind of a sound. And the orchestrions of that period were actually even worse because they were even louder and even more obnoxious. So about 20 years ago, Yamaha came out with the Yamaha Disklavier and they used kind of an entirely different technology, which is solenoids, which allow you to really have the full range of musical dynamics. So you can have soft notes, loud notes, and achieve that sort of rise and fall that makes music do what good music does, which is to tell a story and sort of move through time. And that was sort of the model for me when I had all the different inventors and engineers build the instruments that became my thing. Everything has this sort of musicality to it that the early orchestrions really did not have.

CAVANAUGH: I’m talking with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and we’re talking about his “Orchestrion” concert that he’s bringing to the Spreckels Theatre this week and just so – describe to us what the stage looks like when you’re actually playing the orchestrion because it’s you on the stage with a guitar but there’s a lot more going on there, too.

METHENY: There’s a lot going on. I mean, you know, I – There’s really never been a concert like this. This is something very unusual. I’m about 60 concerts in around the world now and I wish I could get a, you know, camera to just take a picture of the audience each night when it’s sort of revealed what’s going on up there. It’s very interesting visually, and I mean, I’m real proud of the record that’s out right now of this music but I kind of knew going into this that I had two jobs and job number one, making the record, would be the harder of the two jobs in a way because nobody would be able to really see it. It just kind of sounds good. You know, it just…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

METHENY: …sounds – sounds cool. But when you see it all in action, I mean, it’s alive and it’s like a lot of stuff. I mean, there’s about 400 solenoids available to be played at any point in time and another 100 or so pneumatic devices available. So it’s quite a bunch of stuff and I’m sort of in the middle of it all controlling it in many, many different ways. It’s very complicated on a technical level, not just for the mechanics but kind of for the way that I’m running the whole thing and sort of the way I’ve kind of set everything up.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how is it that you actually tour with all of this high technology plus the wires and cables and so forth that you need to actually plug in these – this variety of instruments you have onstage?

METHENY: Well, you know, I’ve been kind of out on the road for 35 years or so now, doing all kinds of different things.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

METHENY: And I’m pretty used to doing things, you know, on the upper end in terms of complexity. I mean, my regular band is sort of known for doing stuff that’s technically, you know, difficult in terms of how we, you know, set everything up and all that. And even if I just do a trio gig or a solo guitar gig, somehow I seem to manage to make it complicated. So I’ve got a few key people that work with me that have worked with me for many years who, when I announced this, both almost quit but then kind of decided to go ahead and stay along for the adventure. And at this point, we’ve pretty much got it so that, you know, we’re doing a different city every day and have been for the last four months, so we sort of can do it all.

CAVANAUGH: Well, before we go any further, let’s hear you and the orchestrion play. We’ve got a cut. This is from the title track to “Orchestrion.”

(audio of Pat Metheny playing the title track “Orchestrion” from his album of the same name)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Pat Metheny with the title track to “Orchestrion.” Pat Metheny, jazz guitarist, is my guest. We’re talking about “Orchestrion,” it’s the concert that he’s bringing to the Spreckels Theatre this week and, of course, it’s his new CD as well. Now, Pat, when you’re playing that music, I just want to really get across the idea, when you’re playing it on the stage, this is not a recorded piece of music that you’re playing against, you’re creating all of this. The cymbals are going up and down, the drums are being hit while you’re on stage.

METHENY: Exactly. I mean, it’s – it’s a little hard to describe. You know, the – You got right to the essence of it, though, which is everything that is on the record is being rendered live. And, you know, it’s quite a powerful sound. I mean, there are several pianos, there’s vibes, there’s marimba, you know, other mallet instruments, dozens and dozens of percussion instruments and then me, too, kind of interacting with everything and also being able to kind of invent and alter everything as I go. And that’s where it gets complicated because people can sort of imagine part one but part two, in terms of the control aspect of this, even for somebody who’s very technically savvy with what’s happening in the music technology world, I have to spend an hour…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

METHENY: …explaining to them all the different ways that I’m doing it. But it’s a really, really fun night. And, like I said, there’s, you know, part of what makes it so fun is that it’s something that people have really never experienced before because, you know, you really could not have done something like this anytime until now. Even though there were those instruments 100 years ago that, you know, was kind of the same idea and on kind of, you know, referring to that idea, this is something kind of way, way beyond that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Pat, I saw a video that your record company made about how you play the orchestrion, and one thing that I wasn’t clear about after I finished seeing that was can you improvise onstage with these instruments?

METHENY: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s kind of the whole point for me, is, you know, I mean, the thing is for me to launch into this, there were a few things that had to be there. I had to have that kind of flexibility where I could, you know – I mean, I can start with nothing and build up pretty much what you just heard in a completely improvised way that’s different each night, and I do. Or I can sort of have material that’s very thought out in a way, not unlike the section that you just played, that I can then alter. I can change the tempo, I can change the amount of instruments, I can change the key, I can change all kinds of things about it. So for me, it’s like without that flexibility and then part two is it has to groove. It has to feel good. I mean, those are sort of nonnegotiables for me. It’s like those are things that when I was conceiving this, you know, were number one and two on the list and, you know, early on I did lots of tests to make sure I would be able to get to that level and sort of was able to do that. And then, of course, as the tour has gone on, I’ve really learned a lot and continue to learn a lot so each night is sort of a new adventure.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in reading about this, Pat, I – I’ve learned that you’ve been like thinking about doing something like this or you’ve had that – this concept sort of rattling around in your head for a long, long time. When did that start?

METHENY: Well, it’s funny because, really, the roots of this are in my grandfather’s basement. My mom’s dad, who lived in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, was a great musician. He was a fantastic trumpet player and he also kind of collected instruments. And one of the instruments he had was a player piano, and I was fascinated with that and spent every summer underneath the piano trying to figure out what was going on with that piano roll and kind of maintained an interest in those instruments over the years and went to lots of museums and exhibits and concerts and everything. And, you know, at a certain point, started to wonder, well, why hasn’t anybody looked at this? This is so cool. I mean, and there have been. There was an interesting composer sort of in the forties and fifties named Conlan Nancarrow who wrote a lot of music for player piano but it was, you know, kind of addressing the things that were impossible to play by humans as opposed to just kind of writing, you know, for lack of a better word, more conventional music.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

METHENY: So, you know, it always struck me as like, wow, this is sort of an untapped resource here and also, you know, there were people and are people kind of building new kinds of instruments using this same idea. So most of them really didn’t know about each other. It sort of – I’ve kind of become a clearing house for all these guys because I’ve got really five different inventors represented onstage and now that I’ve been out in the world, I’m hearing from the other 13 guys around the planet that are building cool stuff, too. So I look forward to a version two of this at some point.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear more from the “Orchestrion.” This is Pat Metheny on guitar with “Expansion.”

(audio of Pat Metheny playing “Expansion” from the album “Orchestrion”)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Pat Metheny and the orchestrion and it’s a cut called “Expansion.” And I’m speaking with Pat Metheny. He’s bringing his “Orchestrion,” his robotically-activated music concert to the Spreckels Theatre this week. I know it’s so much more complex than that but it’s hard to explain, Pat.

METHENY: Well, you know, it’s funny, you know, people, you know, use the robot word a lot with this.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

METHENY: And sort of I think that makes people think, oh, there’s going to be like all these little transformer guys, you know, playing drums…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

METHENY: …and base and all that. It doesn’t really work like that. I mean, you know, technically speaking I guess you could say that there’s a robotic kind of element to it but, I mean, in that sense, you know, the orchestrion word is a little bit of a better one in the sense that it does connect to this impulse that seems to have been around for at least 100 years for a musician to sort of, you know, compose for instruments that are being activated in this particular way.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know, Pat, you, in one of the articles I read about this, you said that you weren’t, you know, real familiar with the steampunk movement but this orchestrion that goes back to the 19th century for some of its elements and combines it with the highest of high tech in the 21st century, is very much part of the steampunk movement. Have you familiarized yourself with that in the time elapsed?

METHENY: I’m not really a movement person.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

METHENY: I sort of am nonaffiliated across the board. I mean, even in the jazz world, which, of course, I am a part of, I’m, you know, sort of not really part of any one thing. I’m – You know, to me, music is kind of one big thing? And I don’t really even divide it. You know, to me, there – we’re all using the same 12 notes and…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

METHENY: …you know, whether it’s Stravinsky or Herbie Hancock or, you know, you know, whoever, it’s like, you know, I’m just looking for good notes and sort of looking for an honest way of expressing those notes into a sound that has value for me. So it’s sort of like I’m – I’m sort of, you know, nondenominational in that respect.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Pat Metheny, I know that you worked on this so hard for quite some time and one thing that I read, you said, you know, you hadn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in about four months. The kind of energy and focus that it took in order to make this work really sort of displays a real desire to get this done, and I’m wondering why were you so focused on this? Why is this so important to you?

METHENY: Well, I would say that, you know, my sense of things has always been kind of viewed through the idea that jazz guys have often been, throughout its history, the sort of research division in the world of music. I mean, you know, throughout the 20th century, jazz guys were always the first guys to do a whole bunch of things, I mean, from electric guitar to the drum set to the way the saxophone was used to a certain kind of writing, a certain kind of harmony and so forth. I mean, and that’s continued, you know, for a good chunk of jazz’s history. Somehow around 1980 there became a neoconservative movement in jazz that’s not unlike what happened politically…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

METHENY: …around that time that I really resist. I don’t think we can go back to the good old days. I don’t think that that’s possible. I think it’s mythology. And I feel like jazz guys in general should be the guys asking hard questions, trying new things even if sometimes they don’t work, as opposed to sort of just standing on the shoulders of the quote, unquote, the tradition, which, to me, really is almost a guaranteed thing that doesn’t work. I mean I just don’t hear people playing authentically in previous styles. I think it’s not really possible to do it. You can play some good notes and you can sound good and it can swing and it can feel good and all that sort of thing but, to me, what I like is when I’m bumping up against stuff that I don’t really know. And I’ve had good results by trying to put myself in situations where I have no idea what I’m doing. And this is – this has been one of those, so…

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Pat, during all this time when you were working on this, did you get calls from, you know, musicians you’ve worked with and say, you know, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t we just play together? What’s the problem?

METHENY: Well, the thing is, I think that’s to miss the point a little bit.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

METHENY: You know, for instance, you know, the idea of this replacing somebody is just kind of wrong. I’m just curious. What’s your favorite animated movie?

CAVANAUGH: Oh, gosh, you’ve put me on the spot. I’m just going to – maybe it’s not my favorite but the one I can think of right now is “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

METHENY: Okay, so it would be like watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and saying, wow, that was such a great movie but, you know, why didn’t they get Judy Garland to play Snow White? I mean, you know, it’s not that. It’s a cartoon. It’s a different form. You would not have gotten that same result that the people that created that would have not used that same fabric had it been real people. It would’ve had a very, very different feeling. But at the same time, the sort of narrative and dramatic qualities that make an animated movie work are kind of parallel to what happens in, you know, like a conventional movie. This, to me, is very similar to animation. I mean, this is, in fact, directly connected to that. And it’s something that, you know, has not really been explored that much sort of filtered through the prism of my kind of interest in terms of harmony and melody and so forth.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, so when people go to the Spreckels on Wednesday, is there anything in particular they should look for or listen for?

METHENY: Well, I think that, you know, this is a concert where no matter what you think you’re going to hear, it’s going to be different than what you think it’s going to be. I mean, that’s the one thing that has been constant throughout this. It’s – The record is really just the tip of the iceberg on many, many levels. And, you know, it’s been a very exciting response for me as a performer to kind of just, you know, check out the audience this time around. I mean, it’s really, really a lot of fun. So I would say people should just come, you know, ready to experience something they have never experienced before and, who knows, may never experience again.

CAVANAUGH: Pat Metheny, thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it.

METHENY: It’s my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Pat Metheny plays the historic Spreckels Theatre in downtown San Diego, bringing his “Orchestrion,” this Wednesday at 8:00 p.m. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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