Metheny's 'Orchestrion' comes to Baltimore

Work fuses mechanical instruments, improvisation

  • Pat Metheny brings his 'Orchestrion' to the Hippodrome Theatre.
Pat Metheny brings his 'Orchestrion' to the Hippodrome… (Jimmy Katz, Handout photo )
October 14, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

"It all traces back to my grandfather," said the brilliant jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. "He had a player piano in the basement, and I fell in love with it when I was a kid."

That early fascination with mechanical instruments led decades later to the development of "Orchestrion," Metheny's remarkable project that turns him into the ultimate one-man band.

The title comes from a concoction designed to imitate the sounds of an orchestra. It first appeared in the late 1700s and, in various refinements, enjoyed a measure of popularity into the early 20th century.

"I've been to every orchestrion and mechanical instrument museum across the States and even in Asian and Europe," Metheny, 56, said. "I wondered why someone hadn't looked at making that kind of thing again."

Metheny decided to be that someone. He saw possibilities in utilizing solenoids and pneumatics to fashion new kinds of music production, and he started contacting creative folks in various places to help launch an orchestrion for the 21st century.

"Everybody thought I had really lost it this time," Metheny said with a laugh.

The 17-time Grammy winner (in a dozen different genres) commissioned inventors to fashion new mechanized instruments — about 40 of them, including keyboards, percussion, tuned bottles and GuitarBots (a robotic guitar).

"I wrote probably 90 pages of music before the instruments got there," Metheny said. "But not one note of it worked. It didn't translate at all. I needed to start writing music all over again. The good news was that, within seconds, all this other stuff started pouring out."

The result is a substantive, easily engaging work that ranges in mood from highly kinetic and prismatic to bluesy and soft-edged. "Orchestrion" contains composed and improvised elements. "There is an infinite set of possibilities," Metheny said. "I can go anywhere in the spectrum at any time, at the drop of a hat."

Metheny operates and controls this acoustic arsenal during live performance, primarily using his guitar. "No laptops onstage; that was hip in 1998 for about two months," he said. "I'm controlling it all."

Although very effective on the recording (it was released last January), "Orchestrion" is a whole new experience live. "It's almost like a magic show," Metheny said. "There has never been a concert like this. I wish I had been taking pictures of the audience all along. There's a real 'Springtime for Hitler' moment at each performance," he added with another laugh.

Could there be a sequel in the future?

"I know so much more now about how this can work," Metheny said, "and I've met some other wacky dudes making instruments since I started. 'Orchestrion II' will be really something."

If you go

Pat Metheny performs "Orchestrion" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30-$75. Call 800-551-7328 or go to

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