Pat Metheny has lost his mind (I don't mean that in a bad way)
Jazz guitar master Pat Metheny brought his Orchestrion show to the Aladdin Theater in Portland last night, providing an adoring audience with a highly entertaining and thought-provoking evening. It was some of the world's most lyrical modern instrumental music -- and some of the most challenging -- but the way it was delivered was an absolute hoot.
Orchestrion is a one-man show, but it's one man surrounded by his four dozen robots, playing along with him. Behind Metheny and all around him were automated instruments being operated by remote control. A couple of large xylophones, a baby grand piano (and another offstage, apparently), all manner of drums and percussion instruments, a glockenspiel, eight robotic slides that appeared to be strings of some sort, a wall-mounted six-string guitar and bass guitar, and a large bookcase stacked with what seemed like large bottles filled with liquid, into which air was being injected to produce sound (like blowing into a beverage bottle). A lot of the activity came across as if it was pre-programmed, but a goodly portion of it was being "played" by Metheny himself, who sent commands to the other instruments by stepping on foot pedals and plucking strings on his own guitar. As each instrument went to work, a small indicator light near it came on to provide a visual map. There were also some fairly abstract video images projected on some of the larger objects.
I should have known better than to try to take an iPhone image of a spotlit stage, but here's a couple of crude snapshots to give you some idea:
The foregoing description is goofier than the reality was. After all, this is Pat Metheny, whose signature riffs and prowess as a composer have taken him around the jazz world more than once over a 35-year career. He could back up his guitar stylings with a kazoo and a nose flute, and it would still be some seriously fine stuff. Last night's program included a suite that he wrote and recorded for his new banks of toys, but then he took the instruments through some of his classics, a couple of improvisations that helped break down the programming process, and even an Ornette Coleman number.
Metheny explained that the Orchestrion was a dream of his since discovering his grandfather's player piano as a youngster. Once recorded music arrived, people stopped trying to expand the player piano idea to whole bands. Besides, their annoying lack of any sound dynamics -- the inability to vary volume -- made the old players pretty tedious. But nowadays, with the advent of the solenoid switch (and computers, of course -- the elephant in the room that wasn't mentioned by the artist), much greater things are possible.
To say the performance was disarming would be an understatement. "Question No. 1," Metheny explained, "is, 'Have I lost my mind?'" At times, that seemed an apt inquiry. It was as if he were playing with a great group of side people, but it was just him up there. It was as if he were playing to a computer-generated background track, but not really -- the actual instruments were right there before our eyes and ears. It was going back in time and scrambling the history of music technology to see what might have been. It was also some sort of statement -- or at least an important question -- about what it means to "make music" nowadays.
I'm glad I got to see and hear it, and the sounds were exquisite, but I still haven't quite figured out what happened up there. This is one music experience that may never get fully sorted out. I get the sense that that's the way Metheny wants it.