Pat Metheny talks about going solo with his Orchestrion project

With his latest album, Orchestrion, Pat Metheny takes the player piano concept to a completely different level, putting a new spin on what could be considered a "solo" project in the process. He's backed by an ensemble of acoustic instruments (several pianos, drum kit, marimbas, "guitar-bots," dozens of percussion instruments and cabinets of carefully tuned bottles), each controlled by software as well as solenoid switches and pneumatics.

We spoke with Metheny (who will bring all of these instruments with him when he visits the Paramount Theatre Wednesday, May 5) about some of the challenges of Orchestrion, changing things on the fly and his approach to composing for the album.

Westword (Jon Solomon): Did you have any challenges making any of the Orchestion devices have more of natural "feel"?

Pat Metheny: Because this is something that no one has never really done before, I had a million challenges in many areas. But in a fairly short period of time, because I have been thinking about this and how to do if for so many years, I became acclimated to exactly what was possible in this environment on all fronts. Certainly the issue of feel is one that I would not have been able to live with if it were anything less than excellent. It would have been a dealbreaker for me.

WW: Did you approach composing for Orchestrion any differently than on your previous albums?

PM: Let's put it like this: I would never have written any of this music for any situation other than this one. The music was written to take advantage of what the instruments do best, in my opinion, of course. It is not unlike in any other musical situation, you try to use the best of the materials you have at hand and maybe stay away from what doesn't work. I tend to focus on what each situation offers rather than what isn't there. There is such a rich palette of potential here that the entire project, from beginning to end, has been really fun and inspiring.

WW: Have things been running smoothly on the tour so far, and is it unsettling all to think about the possibility of the machines malfunctioning during a performance?

PM: Being a guitar player, there is always the chance that a string could break at anytime in a concert. It is about the same as that. I just finished 42 gigs in Europe in 41 different cities. I had more trouble finding picks that sounded good every night than any of the other stuff.

WW: While the Orchestrion setting seems to take a solo performance into entirely different terrain, could you see yourself taking the concept even further in the future?

PM: Yes, this feels like version 1.0 of this for me. And now I have heard from a lot of other instrument builders that are doing other interesting things, so I can imagine expanding the ensemble quite a bit.

WW: Is it easy to change things on the fly, say, if you felt like stretching out for a while on a certain section?

PM: Of course. That isn't an issue in even in the slightest way. It can be whatever I want it to be from extremely detailed composition to a hundred percent purely improvised and every shade in between at anytime. The "Orchestrion" project has been interesting in that it is really open ended. I have heard a lot of speculation from people who have no idea about how it all "works" that is mostly really technically wrong and is mostly about their own insecurities and fears. A lot of what seems to concern people about this are questions that they might ask of anyone playing any kind of a solo concert on any kind of an instrument.

For me, what is represented in this project is organic to my 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. Knobs, wires, electricity and all the rest are kind of part and parcel of the world I have lived in over the past forty 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 make up my instrument. I am always naturally looking to see where that all might take me. This is the latest manifestation of that search.

WW: Was there ever a point, maybe early on in the Orchestrion project, when you maybe thought, "What the hell am I getting myself into?" or was it more of a fun challenge?

PM: Yes, this has been a rewarding and deeply thought provoking project on every level. It has made me a better musician and composer in many, many ways. But most of all, yes, it has been a lot of fun. People are going totally crazy. Every concert has been sold out. I have never gotten a reaction like this for anything. This is something totally unique. There has never really been a concert like this. So the whole thing has really been a blast.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon