Pat Metheny Orchestrion at UCSB

Acclaimed Guitarist Invents, Plays with Giant Mechanical Orchestra

Grammy winner Pat Metheny played an awe-inspiring, technologically dazzling one-man show at Campbell Hall last Tuesday.
David Bazemore

This unusual concert brought Pat Metheny, one of the world’s greatest musicians, to town, backed by an orchestra consisting of … Pat Metheny. How is that possible? Answer: Meet the orchestrion. At the end of the 19th century, in the years immediately preceding the development of sound recording, an outpouring of inventions took as their point of departure the pneumatics of the player piano. One such instrument was the orchestrion, a kind of extended player piano that used the same technology of punched paper rolls and pumps for energy to set in motion a much wider variety of acoustic instruments than just the single keyboard.

Fast-forward 100 years to Metheny, unparalleled guitar virtuoso, winner of 17 Grammys, and not-so-closeted player-piano geek. With help from a score of talented techie friends, Metheny constructed a latter-day orchestrion using solenoid technology borrowed from the Yamaha Synclavier, resulting in a 40×15-foot wall of sound (instruments) controlled entirely by the guitarist using his instrument and a few dozen effects pedals.

The result, which Metheny admits was nothing like what even he could imagine, was literally unveiled on Tuesday night to the gasps of a delighted audience. The concert began with Metheny playing solo on an unconnected acoustic guitar, reminding everyone present that Metheny remains one of the few guitarists who truly matter. This man nearly always has what other musicians call “something to say,” that ineffable quality that turns mere virtuosity on an instrument into heart-stirring musicality.

With the orchestrion unveiled and in motion, Metheny moved through three of the pieces featured on his recent album recorded with the thing, and then on to some improvisations designed to assist the audience in unraveling the secret of exactly how the whole apparatus works. From the listener’s perspective, the most remarkable aspect of the performance was the extraordinary fact that, against all odds and logic, the giant contraption really swings. With lights flashing, cranks turning, and invisible fingers running over every inch of its enormous frame, the orchestrion still managed to sound like a human band making live music. Ask anyone who caught this charmingly eccentric spectacle and they are sure to tell you—there’s nothing else like it.


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