05/22/10

Pat Metheny: Orchestrion in Maryland

The Music Center at Strathmore, Bethesda, Md.; May, 19, 2010

Pat Metheny visited the posh Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Md., on Wednesday night, playing music from his wildly ambitious robot-band album, Orchestrion. But for a few troubling moments, he seemed to be pulling from Zero Tolerance for Silence, his notorious noise experiment from 1994. It happened as the 55-year-old guitarist transitioned from a familiar sort of solo performance to a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

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Pat Metheny with Orchestrion
By Jimmy Katz
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Pat Metheny & Orchestrion
By Jimmy Katz

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Early on, Metheny built steadily toward the Orchestrion spectacle; a short solo acoustic set began with single-note lines and ended with Metheny performing on his 42-string Pikasso instrument. In between were the sort of memorable melodies, determined strumming and pensive, folkish cadences that make his music so identifiable, heard here in arrangements of songs like “Make Peace” and “The Sound of Water,” both from Metheny’s collaborations with Brad Mehldau. Surrounding the guitarist were objects of foreshadowing: cloth-covered monoliths in back of him, and enormous wooden crates pushed toward the corners of the stage.

The anticipation heightened when Metheny donned his Ibanez hollowbody guitar and began picking along to the metronomic, percussive clink of what sounded like finger cymbals. Then, a blare of white noise. He kept playing. Then another. “I have no idea what that was,” said Metheny. Some chuckles up front. Then the fuzz—grating and loud—kept coming, and the situation moved from hiccup to major issue. “We’re obviously having technical difficulties,” he said, and apologized, more than once. But there were jokes to cut the tension. “Do you know why this is happening?” he asked. “Because my main hero in life, Gary Burton, is here.” Some cheers, and shouts of “We love you, Pat.” Then more jokes. He remembered another problematic gig, and another fan who responded with “We love you, Pat”: “The more he kept saying it, the worse things got,” Metheny quipped.

But soon enough the crisis—a problem with the house sound system, Metheny revealed later—was averted, and the cloaks on those monoliths fell away. It was a toy-factory-in-motion sort of moment, to be sure, all that restless machinery, the sheer vastness of it on display. Behind Metheny was a drum kit, separated into individual components and suspended within metal frames, along with a set of congas and a variety of small percussion instruments. Behind him and to his left were an acoustic guitar and a bass guitar, set against a board around head high. And then there were the bookends: two Yamaha Disklavier pianos, a marimba and a vibraphone, two wooden cabinets with glass bottles that yielded tones reminiscent of a Mellotron’s flute sounds, and, the most curious gadgets in Metheny’s artillery, two GuitarBots. Their timbre was (and is, on the Orchestrion record) hard to pin down: something like a guitar synth or vintage “sawtooth” signal, strangely effective when traversing unison lines alongside Metheny’s guitar. (With their vertical orientation and bustling sense of movement, they also seemed the most human and comically “robotic” of the guitarist’s mechanical cohorts.)

So one angle of this show seemed purely visual. Homing in on the robots attached to each instrument—in sum, the “Orchestrionics”—it was fun to witness the solenoids and pneumatics in action: the hammering of the mallets on the marimba, the spontaneous twitching of a tambourine. But as that effect wore off—and it eventually did in this somewhat overlong 2 1/2-hour program—the focus came back to Metheny’s latest compositions. Some of this very complex, Pat Metheny Group-like music was stunning. The rubber really seemed to hit the road about a third of the way through with Orchestrion’s title suite and its baroque yet supremely tuneful lines. But other moments pointed up how great jazz is dependent on a human touch: The odd, rigid swing section in “Soul Search” made this writer miss Antonio Sanchez dearly.

The whole enterprise raised questions, and Metheny owned up to that. The first question many people had, he said, was “When exactly did you lose your mind?” The second was “How does all that stuff work?” The guitarist never adequately answered the latter query, though he tried, in a few different ways. One way had to do with personal history: the story of discovering his grandfather’s player piano, and his subsequent lifelong fascination with 18th- and 19th-century orchestrions. Other explanations were more hands-on. In one improvised flight, he repeated the head to Ornette Coleman’s “Broad Way Blues” while layering on Orchestrionics. But because the other instruments mostly mirrored each note of the theme rythmically—the percussion doing an unwieldy impression of free-jazz drumming—the overall result was more cacophonous than interesting. Yet another question arose: How does Metheny make it sound good?

A later improv strove to answer that one. It involved a score of beautiful melodic figures being looped: arpeggiated chords on acoustic guitar; a series of dramatic, longish notes from the blown bottles. Toward the end, with one guitar slung around to rest on his back, Metheny improvised a solo on his MIDI guitar, which was positioned on a stand. It was an experiment but it constituted a high point. (If a live album should come from this, let’s hope some of these off-the-cuff exercises make the cut.)

But there was no real lucid explanation of the onstage magic, and encore numbers like the fleet “Stranger in Town” only exacerbated the sense of bewilderment. How much of the music was pre-programmed? Do certain parts of the fretboard control certain instruments? What was that console at center stage? What do the pedals do? Is this an unprecedented musical exploration, a vanity project, a major jazz event, or all of the above?

5 Comments

  • May 24, 2010 at 12:13PM EricSinger

    As the Director of LEMUR, the group that created most of the robotic musical instruments for Pat Metheny's Orchestrion, I'm very excited to be a part of this project. To see video and more of LEMUR's musical robots and the music we create with them, see http://lemurbots.org. -- Eric Singer

  • May 24, 2010 at 06:55PM mike hayes

    "You can fool some of the people all of the time. You can fool all of the people some of the time. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time." Abe Lincoln said that.

    Mr. Haga is to be commended for this even review citing both the advances and shortcomings of this project. Unlike other reviews surrounding this tour, that were more like press releases and publicist spins accepted verbatim from the artist, Mr. Haga had the courage to ask questions avoided and delve deeper as a listener, rather than as a fan. In the difficult world of journalism today with the internet and a disturbing symbiotic relationship and coziness with the press,public figures enjoy, journalism has to endure to get access, and thus get read. His courage deserves special recognition.

    This project involves both midi and computer technology, but it is consistently referred to as acoustic instruments driven by electronics and in real time, so consequently automatically better on that basis alone. I beg to differ, on a very basic level-playing the instruments, and players of the instruments, many of whom embraced midi with great success, as well as mixing midi and live playing, particularly in the areas of percussion and groove in many contemporary genres.

    A recent blog post at YouTube re: this project, a respondent said it was like Stevie Wonder or early Prince. I responded that Stevie Wonder played live drum tracks and even during early Prince days there was no midi. What I really want people to understand is that Stevie Wonder sat down at a drum set, put his foot on a bass pedal and a hi hat pedal, held sticks in his hands and played on drums and cymbals with those sticks. He then recorded and saved those tracks in real time and added similar tracks playing on keyboards for keyboard parts on top of those tracks (Talking Book, Inner Visions). It was NOT triggered by some other instrument he knew how to play. It grooved because he knew how to play those instruments in real time.

    Some midi parts that are quantized also groove especially when they are played together with live drum parts. The best most well known example is "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins (a drummer by the way). There are many great drum machine grooves in rap music. What makes music groove has to do with the people doing the grooving on their respective instruments. We have all suffered through wedding bands that were in "real time" that could not get a toe tapping if their life depended it on it. That is why drum machines were a real innovation initially. They were in time, all the time. They were doing Fatback -laying it down-no frills. Cool, no problem.

    Then after awhile it became machine like and smarter percussionists learned the technology, drum controllers improved (DrumKats, Midi drum sets) and people stopped using quantization all the time and mixed in both, and we had Electronica, also very expressive, and grooved.

    So this idea that because it is in real time makes it better is nonsense. Does it groove?

    The same can be said for midi sounds, patches, and samples as opposed to purely acoustic sounds played with no nuance. On this project vibes and marimba are the most glaring examples of zero personality and humanity that come to mind-but I play those instruments, so I know first hand. One of the cool things about midi, electronica, fusion, and Hell, Jimi Hendrix on the electric guitar, was the creation of new sounds that had not been made before, and COULD NOT be made with acoustic instruments.

    It also cannot be overlooked this project has also netted Mr. Metheny a (minimum) extra million dollars so far that would have gone to musicians based on 50 concerts at $100 per ticket at !,000 tickets sold per venue. That's based on 50% costs on his part.

    So I fail to see how this does not amount to anything but a really disturbed ego driven project that just made him money under the phony auspices it was Art because he said it was.

    In Dissent,

    Michael Hayes

  • Sep 21, 2010 at 01:16PM bogdank

    I tend to agree with Michael on this one. I was at the concert in Bethesda.

    I had an opportunity to listen to Pat many times over the years (as early as 1980's) and I always liked his music and his style of playing. I think one of the drawbacks of the Orchestrion gear was that you could not hear any dynamics on playing. Everything was just flat in the background. The percussions did not have any touch to it. They sounded more like a cheap metronome, both due to over-quantization and no "touch sensitivity". Even when programming MIDI (and I'm doing that often) you can control the velocity of your drum/percussion kit. You can either record it live or you can edit individual notes to achieve proper dynamics.

    Pat's performance was great, but the background "robot-band" was very flat and lifeless due to inadequate dynamics. There were no real contrasts. So, after a while it sounded like overly compressed master. It created listening fatigue.

    I definitely enjoyed the part where he played on his guitars alone. Especially the "Make Peace" song (even more because Mehldau was not there to spoil it ...:). I could finally listen to that song fully relaxed and hear it in its full beauty.

    So, I do not know if it was an ego problem or just honest attempt to do something new that ran out of funding and fell short in terms of technical limitations (could not control dynamics precisely using electro-mechanical transducers)... Nevertheless, there was no real groove. I agree. Not sure why it was not "programmed" better...

    Bogdan
    Bethesda, MD

  • Oct 24, 2010 at 12:19AM caleb

    Many reviews I am subscribed to woe the introduction of synthesized noise for its shifting of focus away from traditional instrumentation. Many bloggers and academics shun the advent of technology.
    After a decade strong of drastic technological, stylistic and culturally-contextual developments, I wonder when we will stop criticizing the artists desire to attempt a method of creation. Perhaps Metheny's process lacks 'humanity'; perhaps it's been done before. Perhaps it makes a different use of combinations of MIDI and acoustic technology - perhaps it even challenges the ideologies of each.
    Perhaps, more importantly, it challenges our perception of what is 'music', what is 'composing', and what is 'performing'.
    Perhaps we can acknowledge his attempts, and for what it was, I consider dramatically successful, and applaud his contributions. That would most probably involve reviewing our own egos' input.

  • Oct 24, 2010 at 12:19AM caleb

    Many reviews I am subscribed to woe the introduction of synthesized noise for its shifting of focus away from traditional instrumentation. Many bloggers and academics shun the advent of technology.
    After a decade strong of drastic technological, stylistic and culturally-contextual developments, I wonder when we will stop criticizing the artists desire to attempt a method of creation. Perhaps Metheny's process lacks 'humanity'; perhaps it's been done before. Perhaps it makes a different use of combinations of MIDI and acoustic technology - perhaps it even challenges the ideologies of each.
    Perhaps, more importantly, it challenges our perception of what is 'music', what is 'composing', and what is 'performing'.
    Perhaps we can acknowledge his attempts, and for what it was, I consider dramatically successful, and applaud his contributions. That would most probably involve reviewing our own egos' input.

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