Thursday 11 February 2010

Pat Metheny's Orchestrion: The Barbican, 10th February

The perpetually youthful Pat bounded on in trademark trainers, jeans, big hair and grin looking like he had just stepped out of Wayne's World (Garth's genius older brother?). He kicked the show off with a couple of numbers from his recent excursions with Brad Mehldau, playing first a Baritone Guitar (possibly, I was in the gods and had forgotten my opera glasses) and then his Picasso guitar, a weird beast with two necks and multiple sets of drone strings. The music was beautiful and inventive and his solo guitar filled the huge acoustic chamber that is the Barbican main hall. He then moved on to his PM signature archtop with some modifications that meant, somehow, he could accompany himself with a set of finger cymbals. Not quite the mechanical orchestra everyone was expecting. However, on the fourth number the coloured sheets that formed that formed the backdrop fell away to reveal something that resembled a cross between some Victorian fairground exotica and the Starship Enterprise.

Physically, the orchestrion is several cabinets contain instruments that are struck (symbols, drums), those that are blown (bottles) plus some standalone instruments (grand piano, marimba, glockenspiel). Pat played the Suite that he had recorded for the Orchestrion album in which he was accompanied by the orchestrion. The suite itself was classic Pat Metheny group, rather than Pat in jazz improvisation mode. The emphasis was on orchestration rather than improvisation but, slowly, the nature of the orchestrion was revealed. Just as player pianos were driven by piano rolls, the orchestrion was driven by arrangements driven, presumably, from a computer (as opposed to steam). However, the guitar also drove the instruments, so that Pat would play a melody on the guitar and, simultaneously, it would be played on the blown bottles. It was possible to see what was being played when because each time something was struck or blown, a little light would go on.

The suite seemed, largely, to be driven from a pre-written score. However, Pat then moved onto creating some improvised music which helped the audience understand what was happening. To summarise:
- Pat created a looped phrase on the guitar (e.g. a set of chords)
- Then created a looped melody to be played on top of the chords
- He then used the guitar to create a percussion loop
- He the added another looped melody (e.g. grand piano)

In recent years, I have seen quite a few gigs where guitarists use loops in similar ways (Bill Frisell, John Scofield, John Paricelli). Pat Metheny uses the loops to drive analogue instruments which is both "different" and"interesting". Yes, the orchestrion looks like it came from the fevered imagination of a Victorian inventor (or genius teenager in Metheny's case) but the saving grace was that it was, after all, Pat Metheny. His music is distinctive and extraordinary. The wide open melodies evoke the wide open spaces of the mid-West where he was brought up. The melodies are American, rather than African-American, and they they have an all-embracing, inclusive quality. You can whistle the themes (as the person next to me insisted on doing) and he has that Mozart-like ability to spontaneously create music that just sounds right and always managed to avoid (just) sounding cliched or sentimental. The charm of his on-stage persona matched that of his music.

The audience lapped up what they saw and heard and the performance was made more accessible by Pat describing the genesis of the idea and how he realised it. The technical difficulties of getting guitars to trigger solenoids that then hit instruments in real time is mind boggling (technicians were constantly hovering around the edges, adjusting things).  Pat admitted that he had sleepless nights worrying about all the things that could go wrong. Well, for the last number they did go wrong. The orchestrion packed up. "Helpful" suggestions came from the audience - "Reboot it!", "Try switching it off and switching it on again". Pat was embarrassed but charmed the audience by his response and to encore with just solo guitar was nothing less than the audience expected. The orchestrion is a folly, in the best sense of the word, but the challenge of making it work was one that Pat Metheny had set himself, not one that that audience had expected.

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