The Infernal Desire Machine of Mr. Metheny

So, the Orchestrion. Pat Metheny — that purveyor of sucrose-tasteful latin jazz/post-bop fusion whom we can’t easily dismiss nevertheless — has recently been auditioning said device to fans and the curious alike on YouTube, on the homonymous album, and in concert. Named for a nineteenth century hybrid instrument which similarly aimed for unilateral orchestral simulation, the orchestrion consists of about fifty separate sound-producing entities, which are operated via electromagnetic solenoids  programmed in different sequences according to trigger. These actuate either a pneumatic or hydraulic valve, which in turn strike or blow, and then dampen, the vessels. Depending on selections made via foot-operated solenoids/DSPs, Metheny can himself trigger loops and/or unison accompaniments (which accords with his favoured style of orchestration). For the sake of pragmatism, these sorts of operations are restricted in concert, being extensively used only on the demonstrative improvisations Metheny performs. The array of instruments is dominated by tuned and untuned percussion, including vibes, disklavier, congas, bass and acoustic ‘botguitars’, cymbals, marimbas, and shakers, but also includes two sets of bottle-organs. These latter are, simply, sets of precisely tuned glass bottles with pneumatic tubing attached at their top to produce sound. The chromaticism and extended resonances of the bottle-organs add flavour and diversity to the tone colour of the array.

The orchestrion feels in practice like an electroacoustic hyper-sampler, seemingly ridiculous for its flouting of digital technology but mechanically and musically impressive nonetheless. The operations of its many algorithms come off without a hitch, with colour and weight precisely calibrated to fit with those of Metheny’s swashbuckling lead. Swing does not, even, stand in abeyance: numerous passages of dextrous play stack up beside lyric moments of rest and convincing passages of build and decay, with machinic rust only in evidence on occasional transitions, in the sometimes heavy plod of bass and piano, and in the obvious lack of balance in vamp-solo for orchestrion-Metheny. The material itself is what one expects: extended tonality and Latinite percussive effects sifted through hints of bop and freebop modernism in the forms and metrics, all of it sweetened by regular diversions into an easy-on-the-ear lyricism which aims for elegy, but often falls a little short. Folk and Reichian-patterns enrich the flow, on occasion.

But, still, why? The digitisation of musical process casts such an endeavour in the light of nostalgia, a charge buttressed by the comparative mildness of Metheny’s muse itself. The achievement is (largely) mechanical in an age of cybernetic advance. Yet the gain that is had from the live, acoustic production of sound as against the electronic reproductions of a backing track are obvious. A strong element of indeterminacy also deepens the palette; jangling shakers do just that in mid-air, whilst the overtones of the marimbas and vibes are often left to accumulate before they are dampened for the next attack. Clearly an actual band of human beings would, in a sense, be more pliant and flexible, but in terms of conception and execution, the orchestrion must be deemed a (whimsical) success. And as a sheer construction, the orchestrion on stage (where it has to be stacked in a bank like a wall of amplifiers, with pianos, vibes, marimbas and bottle-organs just in front), looks amazing. The tricksy visual conceit enabled by the neat ploy of having little neon lights flash on each instrument as it sounds works wonderfully; you watch the dance of lights notate strange musical labours, and wonder at the mad thrill of it all.

Thrills don’t necessarily come separate from folly, though, and Metheny’s orchestrion should be seen in line with the nineteenth century folly; simulacra for ornament’s sake. Like Japanese Bunraku, Metheny’s orchestrion separates out action, gesture, and effect, whilst asking us to believe as much in their unity as in their autonomy. The machine simulates multiplicity just as it celebrates singularity. Metheny’s half-anthropomorphic, half-fetishised stance towards its cogs and its phonics performs the confusion we all feel in its audience. Despite these clashing codes, though, the machine soars in its role as a sound-producing device.  The possibilities of the orchestrion are boundless, particularly, I imagine,  if it fell into the hands of one more inclined to serration than sugar, scrutiny than sustenance. For that’s the greatest disappointment of the thing: Metheny’s method has changed, explosively so, but the music remains the same. You wonder, what was the point of all that? If the end result is largely the same, why use up all that time and money? Perhaps next time Metheny will spring from his desires a more bold future-mechanical music than he has here.

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