Review: Pat Metheny Orchestrion
(Barbican Hall, February 10th 2010, Review by Rod Fogg)
Stage left, there’s a vibraphone, behind that a baby grand, and further over a tall cabinet containing glass jars half filled with water. A glass harmonica? Stage right, a full-size marimba, more glass jars, and some finger cymbals. The backdrop is a red curtain, which you can tell by the bulges is hiding something. All the instruments have gadgets attached, little solenoid-driven beaters hover over every note of the marimba and vibes. There is a set of four vertical metal plates, each with a slot in the middle, one set on each side of the stage.
Pat began with three acoustic tracks: Make Peace, and Sound of Water from his recent Brad Mehldau collaboration and Unity Village which dates back to his debut album Bright Size Life. Unity Village introduces the triggered finger cymbals and he uses a looper to duet with himself. Gradually the red curtain is drawn back revealing row after row of DIY-store shelving crammed with all manner of percussion instruments (drums, cymbals, hi-hats, glockenspiel) bass guitar, acoustic guitar, electric piano and so on, all operated by the same electro-mechanical means.
Pat plays an intro, the piano joins in – it’s programmed – then the percussion and the bass and all sorts of other sounds. The sliders in the metal plates zip about like crazy. Lights flash on and off behind the glass jars. It’s hard to say what they are actually doing, but they look cool. It’s like playing with backing tapes, except that every sound you hear is actually being performed acoustically in front of you; you can see everything moving, and every solenoid has a flashing l.e.d. light pulsing in time.
Pat can trigger sounds himself – he demonstrates this by programming up a backing track on-the-fly. The instruments will also follow the guitar note for note – Broadway Blues (also from Bright Size Life) was accompanied by random, but rhythmic, tinkling, clattering, thumping and wheezing. Strange, but fun.
Soaring above (“conventionally” it says in the programme notes) is Metheny’s guitar -effortless, pure-toned, inventive, melodic and yet often (surprisingly) scattering impressionistic dissonance like broken glass on a smooth road. The main part of the concert was the five tracks from the Orchestrion album, played as a continuous suite. Many seem inspired by Reichian minimalism and worked well in a live context. It all went swimmingly until, revving up for a grand finale, Pat began to play the opening montuno of Phase Dance. And the toys refused to join in. He played it solo instead, which seemed like a bargain to me. It was no good though, he’d broken it, and the Orchestrion stood silently by as the concert ended as quietly as it had begun, with a couple of acoustic solos.
Aurally and visually, it’s astonishing, weird – and maybe hilarious. Musically, it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before.