RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Concert Review/ Pat Metheny & Orchestrion

img  Tobias

Blessed are the uninformed. As we speed into town, my friend Thomas from Radio Antenne Münster, who has done a bit of research, explains the entire concept of tonight's concert to me in a single sentence: One man, his Guitar and a mechanical orchestra. It certainly sounds intriguing enough to warrant a trip to Dortmund and sufficiently opaque to keep both of us guessing. Like boys at Christmas, we're in for a hell of a surprise, but in a way I'm glad this is all we know, for it allows us to happily speculate on where Metheny may go tonight and to dig up some  personal memories connected to his records: Double-album „Trio Live 99 -> 00“ which I played on a daily basis for a while. The soundtrack to „The Falcon and the Snowman“, which includes his chart-breaking collaboration with David Bowie. Equally daring and commercially successful „American Garage“. And then, of course, „The Way Up“, an ambitious and not entirely uncontroversial disc-spanning composition from 2005. Even though Metheny has remained uniquely recognisable over the years, he has also refused to mark time, choosing instead to continue his explorations and take his music to undiscovered shores full of expectation and promise.

An hour from now, the curtain will rise and give way to a sight of sensational surrealism, causing our jaws to collectively drop in a mixture of bewilderment and amazement. But until then, we quickly gorge down some devilishly hot Tortellini a la Arrabiata in a nearby Pizza-joint and only just arrive in time at the venue - everything pretty much busines as usual. When we have taken our seat in the huge main hall of the Konzerthaus which, with its towering balconies, looks a bit like the apocalyptic club of AC/DC's „Thunderstruck“-video, all we see up front is a  mop of curly hair bending over a Guitar in front of a moody red screen, fingers dancing across the fretboard as though trying to invent new dances for the left hands' extremities. To one side of the podium, a Vibraphone is sleeping in silence, to the other, a large Glockenspiel and a Grand Piano are shrouded in foreboding darkness – it feels almost like sneaking in on the artist at a private after-hour session, after all the other musicians have gone home.

The opening of the gig is of minimalist tenderness: „Unrequited“, with its classical charm and the gradual ascension of „Make Peace“ from sweet and undiluted beauty to a rhythmically agitated thunderstorm see Metheny as a storyteller of great lyricism and a master of  dynamics. For „Sound of Water“, he performs on a 42-String-Guitar, a  modified instrument that would make the genetical engineers of dark Sci-Fi-comedy „Alien Resurrection“ proud. With two heads, an integrated fully-fledged dulcimer and a strong bass-resonance, it allows him to create a dreamy, nocturnal and slightly hazy sound as well as the illusion of a small-scale ensemble. „So this is what he means by one man and his orchestra“, I think to myself.

I'm wrong, of course. When a small silvery box to Metheny's left starts flashing blue, adding a monotonous cymbal-groove to his Blues-scales, something sinister is clearly in the making. Half-way into the piece, Metheny suddenly turns around and the curtain finally rises to give way to a sight of epically bizarre proportions. The formerly quiet instruments to his left and right have started playing by themselves, keys being pressed by invisible hands, mallets knocking on metal moved by mysterious mechanisms. Behind them, a wall of wooden squares appears. Each contains a suspended drum being played by a severed, Adams-Family-like robot-arm, emitting a blue or yellow light-impulse when being struck. There is even a cabinet containing a Bass and a Guitar, hammered to the wood like a swordfish above the fireplace of a mountain log. As the spotlights hit the stage, this deconstructed android-orchestra bursts into the fusion-frenzy of „Expansion“, the third part of the „Orchestrion Suite“, a massive work of epic dimensions which Metheny will perform in a slightly shuffled arrangement but in its roughly hour-long entirety tonight. As he's standing there, clad in black, sporting shining new sneakers and his electric afro, a multitude of associations come to mind: Gyro Gearloose in a musical mood, Einstein as a Rock Star, The Matrix as a musical. One second, it looks like the greatest thing you've ever seen, In the next, it looks like madness. Then, there's something bewitching about it. Then, it seems pointless.

This emotional instability persists for some time, but it thankfully never overshadows the splendour of the music. While „Orchestrion“ was a double-edged affair on record, where its concept didn't always translate into a palpable experience, it comes off as a veritable tour de force in the live situation. Themes are developed in a classical Jazz-idiom, but there are also moments, where stylistic references are far more diverse and intriguinly entangled: The title track, for example, shows that Metheny may have picked up some inspiration from the American minimalists, while his catalytic influence on an entire generation of Post-Rock-bands may long have been underestimated. At the same time, motives are passed along from one piece to the next, which lends a subtle and never unnatural touch of contemporary composition to the action.

Watching him play in front of this battery of percussion and Terminator-arms never ceases to feel slightly unreal throughout the gig. Just how complex his self-created musical Frankenstein really is becomes apparent in a long improvisation, which Metheny builds entirely from scratch. Through an ingenious electronic system, he is capable of playing every single instrumental line on his Guitar, while the Orchestrion mimics his performance in an act of sonic telekinesis. Quickly, he adds Piano and Vibraphone and lays down a heavy bass foundation, before complementing the already fingersnapping groove with a plethora of polyrhythmical elements and entering into a cosmically charged solo, which takes the psychoactive pulsation straight into space. Metheny has quoted a century-old tradition of mechanical instruments as the main inspiration for the project. But because he is capable of adding a wealth of discrete nuances and detail to every part of the Orchestrion, the resulting arrangements are so utterly organic that you'd be hard-pressed to detect a difference between them and a traditional group made of flesh and blood. With both eyes closed, the energy and intensity of his on-a-dime rendition of up-tempo-classic „Stranger in Town“ may even be superior to the studio cut in terms of rawness and emotional immediacy.

On the one hand, there's decidedly a slightly narcistic touch to the performance. On the other, these images and sounds will nonetheless haunt me into my dreams. There's a sensation of both excitement and unease in witnessing this spectacle, equalled perhaps only by watching a 3D movie for the first time. There's something endearing, too, about Metheny referring to the different instruments as „my guys“ and enthusiastically interacting with his toys as though they were as real as his audience.

As we speed away from Dortmund and into the long tunnel of the night, I have to think back of the story Metheny related during the concert. Of how, in his childhood, he would run to his grandfather's house and marvel at the player-piano in the basement, which seemed like complete magic to him at the time, imagining what it would be like to play along to a whole band of these devices. With the physical tension of the gig still pulsing through my veins, the whole idea suddenly seems perfectly reasonable. Entire empires have been built on the dreams of little boys, after all, so why shouldn't Metheny want to make his vision a reality?

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Pat Metheny

Related articles

Concert Review/ Aufgang (Francesco Tristano Schlimé, Rémi Khalifé, Aymeric Westrich)
Live at Elektroakustischer Salon, Berghain, ...
Concert Report/ Transmediale 2010
Live at the Haus der ...
Festival Report/ Transmediale 2010
At the Haus der Kulturen, ...
Concert Review/ Thomas Ankersmit & Valerio Tricoli
Live at Ausland, Berlin, December ...
Concert Review/ FM Einheit & Hans-Joachim Irmler
Live at Berghain, Berlin, November ...
Concert Review/ Yes
Live at the Philipshalle, Düsseldorf, ...

Partner sites