Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Metheny Deserves a Pat on the Back for Latest Effort

As I said on Twitter a while ago, it's not often that I go to the trouble of buying a CD on its release date these days (for that matter, I rarely buy physical CDs themselves right now, thanks to my eMusic subscription). But a new Pat Metheny release is a big deal, especially one as unique as his new solo effort, Orchestrion. It's a "solo album" in every sense of the word, but--in contrast to his 1978 recording, New Chautauqua, where he also played all the instruments, overdubbed in the studio--modern technology allows him to "play" everything live.

So exactly what is this Orchestrion thing, anyway? I'll let Pat do the talking for a moment, from his website:
Orchestrionics" is the term that I am using to describe a method of developing ensemble-oriented music using acoustic and acoustoelectric musical instruments that are mechanically controlled in a variety of ways, using solenoids and pneumatics. With a guitar, pen or keyboard I am able to create a detailed compositional environment or a spontaneously developed improvisation, with the pieces on this particular recording leaning toward the compositional side of the spectrum. On top of these layers of acoustic sound, I add my conventional electric guitar playing as an improvised component.

[...] In the late 1800s and early 1900s, with the emergence of player pianos (pianos played mechanically by moving rolls of paper through a mechanism that physically moved the keys), the next logical step was to apply that same principle to a range of orchestral instruments, often including percussion and mallet instruments. These large instrument arrays were called orchestrions.

Orchestrions flourished in the era that directly proceeded the advent of sound recordings. In many ways, that period of time stands as an interesting middle zone; the first technology that brought a performer to an audience once removed, while retaining the essential characteristics of that performer's message.

[... ]For a number of years leading to this project, I have been gathering the forces of a group of talented inventors and technicians from around the country, and commissioning them to construct a large palette of acoustic sound-producing devices that I can organize as a new kind of orchestrion.
And to my ears, he's definitely succeeded with this project. Included in the mix are piano, bass, a variety of mallet percussion instruments, and some unusual things like a "guitarbot" and a device that blows air into bottles. And top of it all is Pat's signature guitar. (He explains more about the various devices and their inventors here.)

As for the music itself? I'm totally digging it. (As I said on Twitter, I can't imagine a Metheny album being released that I don't absolutely love.) Because no matter what's going on behind him, it's still Pat writing the music and Pat playing guitar, and I'm a huge fan of both of those areas. But here's the thing: There might be only one person playing live, but the music doesn't in any way sound contrived or fake; in fact, it has all the warmth and humanity that's always associated with a Metheny recording.

And the tour for all this starts this weekend. They're coming to the DFW area in April, and I intend to be there when it happens. Sure, it won't be quite the same as watching the interaction between Pat and Messrs. Mays, Rodby, Sanchez, et al., but one look at the setup of all the instruments featured on the CD cover is enough to convince me that this is a must-see, if for no other reason than to experience how this whole thing works.

I've been intrigued by this whole thing ever since it was announced on the Metheny website last year, and I'm happy to say that the hype is justified. Well done, Pat, and good luck with the start of the tour.

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