Pat Metheny’s Mechanical Orchestra

Pat Metheny Goes Past Old School to Antique School.

Hear the audio version of this interview with music in the Echoes Podcast.

Pat Metheny with the Orchestrio


You can hear the full interview with Pat Metheny with Orchestrion demo and Metheny’s music here.

As a child, I remember  visiting Clark’s Trading Post in New Hampshire and being transfixed by an instrument that looked a like a player piano except it had a glass pane and inside were drums and cymbals that played as if inhabited by phantom spirits.  That was an Orchestrion, a mechanical orchestra that flourished in the 19th and early 20th century.  In mid-December, I went to a decommissioned church in Brooklyn where a giant, modern day version of that instrument stretched about 25 feet long and 12 feet high with drums, robot guitars, jug organs, marimba, vibes, piano and more. Standing in the middle is guitarist Pat Metheny.

Orchestion ProjectIn a mix of the antique concepts and computer technology, Metheny has designed his own Orchestrion.  As he picks his guitar he’s joined by this phantom ensemble of live instruments, but no musicians.  Pat Metheny says it’s something he’s wanted to do since he was a child and operated his grandfather’s player piano.  Originally the Orchestrion was a player piano turned into an ensemble.  Metheny saw his first one near his childhood home in Missouri

Pat Metheny: There was a pizza parlor in Kansas City that had one, and I remember saying, “Wow, a bass drum and a cymbal!”  And I remember thinking even then, like, well, why couldn’t it go some hip cymbal patterns?  Why does it just have to go “Chhhh.”

On his album, Orchestrion, Pat Metheny makes it do more than that.  While the original orchestrions were clunky and mechanical, Pat Metheny’s sound like…. the Pat Metheny Group. David Oakes is Metheny’s longtime technical engineer.

David Oakes: I was outside the room, and I heard music playing, and I knew it was Pat, but I couldn’t think of what record it was from.  So I walk in to hear what record it is, and it’s all the instruments playing.  It actually sounded like real people all of a sudden.

Pat Metheny insists he isn’t out to replace his band, but it is the band inside his head.

Pat Metheny: This is sort of like a look into my brain in a way, because every little thing about it is my thing, and there you go.  That’s the way it is.

You can hear Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion to full effect on his new album, Orchestrion Project on Nonesuch Records.

To hear the full Echoes  interview with Pat Metheny with music and demo for the Orchestrion, go here.

~John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

Portions of this article originally appeared in Jazziz Magazine in 1992 and on Echoes 1992

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  8 comments for “Pat Metheny’s Mechanical Orchestra

  1. This project is very cool, and an intriguing build up. I can still recall watching an orchestrion by the (Santa Cruz, Calif.) merry-go-round when I was a child. My grandparents also had a player piano and us kids were always wanting to pump the pedals; the most amazing real machine we’d ever seen. Now that the album has been released, I can really start to appreciate all the effort Mr. Metheny has put into it. I can’t wait to see this thing live (& hope the power doesn’t go out…) THANKS, PAT!

  2. As the Director of LEMUR, the group that created most of the robotic musical instruments for Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion, I was thrilled to be a part of this project. To see video and more of LEMUR’s musical robots and the music we create with them, see — Eric Singer

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