Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion: A Layman’s Explanation

Posted by D.A. Gutierrez in Commentary, Jazz Events, Recaps & Reviews

October 10th, 2010   1 Comment »

So I finally get it! Funny how you can read all the technical explanations you want, but it’s only when you experience things for yourself does it all click.

This past Friday I attended the Pat Metheny show at Bergen PAC in Englewood. What an incredible set! And what a tremendous guitarist Pat is! I’d read about his Orchestrion tour and thought I understood how the mechanized instruments worked- and I did, to a degree. But the real “Aha!” moment came while I watched Pat perform several improvised pieces. “How could they be improvised if the mechanized instruments are pre-programmed to play a given tune?” I thought to myself. Then it happened – I became fully aware of what was going on.

Most people are familiar with keyboard synthesizers, you know, the electronic keyboards that look like pianos but don’t have strings inside. Instead, they have electronic gizmos that allow the keyboard player to dial up a certain sound (for example a trumpet or violin sound) and play it through the interface of the keyboard.

Now that we understand how synthesizers work, we only have to make two mental leaps to understand Pat’s orchestrion. First, the easy one: instead of using a keyboard, Pat is playing a guitar. OK, simple enough. Now here’s the mind-blowing part: instead of having electronic gizmos inside his guitar, his guitar is connected through a “switch board” of sorts that gives him access to every instrument in the orchestrion, allowing him complete dynamic control over each one. Wow!

But that doesn’t mean he’s playing all the instruments all of the time. Just like a synthesizer, he can set an instrument “in motion” and switch over to another one without it interfering with the original instrument. For example, he can hit a foot pedal to control the bass drum and set it to beat out a steady 4/4 beat. Then he can switch over to the snare drum and make it tap out a beat on every second and fourth beat. Or he can move over to the water jugs (yes, he’s got water jugs!) and have them set down a bass line that plays over the established beat.

Experienced guitarists might be drawing a parallel to a standard piece of guitar gadgetry – the multi-effects pedal. Just like you can dial in a certain sound on your multi-effects pedal, Pat can select any instrument in the orchestrion from his “pedal board,” which then gives him full control over that instrument through the interface of the guitar! This is totally amazing! Pat has essentially taken an evolutionary step backward by creating a multi-effects pedal that makes use of real, physical instruments rather than electronic re-creations of those instruments. Unbelievable!

Some might be put off by my use of the word “backward.” I don’t mean this in any negative light. Let me explain: back in the “old days,” in order to get the sound of an orchestra, you needed to have a full orchestra of real musicians. But when technology became sufficiently advanced, a single person could create the sound of an orchestra (in a live setting) through the use of a synthesizer or a multi-effects pedal. However, there was no intermediary step where a single person could control multiple physical instruments from a single interface. Yet, that is what Pat has done with Orchestrion.

When I first heard of Orchestrion, I incorrectly assumed that the instruments were all pre-programmed to play certain songs a certain way and all Pat had to do was play his guitar and “keep up with them.” Once I understood what was really going on – that each time a song is performed, it is a new and organic version of itself – I appreciated his project on a whole new level, and I hope you do, too.

I hope I’ve been able to explain it properly. If not, just watch the following video from about the 3:05 to 3:50 marks. Pat will “show” you what I may not have been able to properly “tell.”