In the music documentary film Dig!, a member of the neo-psychedelic rock band The Brian Jonestown Massacre comments that the group’s vocalist, Anton Newcombe, would love to be able to clone himself so as to be able to play all the instruments himself. Science might have a little way to go before such a scenario can be actualized, but the ever-inventive Pat Metheny, a pioneering jazz guitarist who’s won no less than 17 Grammy Awards in 12 different categories, has done the next best thing: He’s created the “New Orchestrion,” a device that uses the technology of solenoid switches and pneumatics to control instruments such as vibraphones, percussion, keyboards, glass jugs and a “guitar-bot” with four single-stringed necks. By commanding his robot army via a MIDI-equipped guitar and programmed computer sequences, Metheny has the enviable ability to be his own backup band.
“For me, what is represented in this project is organic to my personal interests and is intrinsic to the fairly odd skill set that I have had to develop, not just with this project, but with everything I have had to do to be the kind of musician that I ended up being,” Metheny offers. “Knobs, wires, electricity, and all the rest are kind of part and parcel of the world I have lived in over the past 40 years or so—not unlike what reeds are to sax players and mouthpieces are to trumpet players. All of this, including computers and everything else, kind of makes up my instrument.”
The 55-year-old musician, whose New Orchestrion functions by way of devices created by such inventors as New York’s Eric Singer and California’s Ken Caulkins, says this project is simply the latest manifestation of his constant search for the possibilities that this sort of technology offers. “But again, this is a very personal thing for me,” he notes. “Most people have thought I was nuts all along the way for even trying to do something on this scale.”
Metheny’s latest undertaking is hardly his first groundbreaking musical endeavor: He’s credited with introducing alternate 12-string tunings to the jazz idiom, was one of the first jazz musicians to make extensive use of the Roland GR-300 Guitar Synthesizer, and has turned heads with his custom-made Pikasso I, a 42-string, three-necked guitar created by Canadian luthier Linda Manzer.
Though the guitarist’s ambitions have led him into seemingly futuristic terrain this time around, his new creation actually has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a large, player piano-like contraption called an “orchestrion” played various orchestral instruments by way of a large pinned cylinder or a perforated music roll.
In spite of the cutting-edge nature of the New Orchestrion venture, Metheny stresses, “Behind this or any other musical effort, the basic qualities of spirit, soul, feeling and, of course, a high level of content—harmonically, melodically and rhythmically—must be there, at least for me.” He adds that the use of the orchestrion still leaves plenty of room for spontaneity: A performance with his mechanical band can be “whatever I want it to be, from extremely detailed composition to 100 percent purely improvised and every shade in between at any time.”
Does Metheny notice a difference in his guitar playing when he’s being backed up by his cyber-selves? “Each setting offers different demands and challenges as well as opportunities to discover other aspects of music,” he states. “I always try to find something in each setting that gives me the chance to tell a story. The narrative, communicative aspect of music is endlessly fun and fascinating to me, and that pursuit is what everything I do revolves around.”
Pat Metheny plays at 8 p.m. Monday, April 26 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $68.25 Gold Circle or $47.25/ $36.75 general. For more information, call 420-5260 or go to santacruztickets.com.