Photo: Marla Cohen
In this month''s cover story on Pat Metheny''s new Orchestrion album (“A Well-Oiled Machine”), I mention visiting his rehearsal space, an old church in Brooklyn, where he was getting ready for the tour. Here''s a little more of the back story.
I was there, along with a number of other reporters and photographers, for a press briefing about the project. We were first shown into an outer room of the church (the same room where they shot the album cover photo); after a bit of waiting and mingling, Metheny walked in and gave a talk about the history of orchestrions and how he had become interested in the subject. He showed us a coffee-table book about orchestrions, which had photos of vintage ones from the late 1800s. It was clear that Metheny really has a passion for these old self-playing instruments, and that''s what led him to this incredibly ambitious project.
Next, he took us into the main room of the church, which was the rehearsal area, where all of the robotic instruments were set up. It''s also where the opening photo of the story was shot, so you can get an idea of what it looked like. What you can''t see from that photo is all the stuff off to the sides. There were huge road cases, computers, Metheny''s old Synclavier (I''m not sure why that was there), and cables everywhere.
If I didn''t know better, I would have thought it was a workshop of some mad musical scientist. But there was actually plenty of method to the madness, and Metheny and his tech crew were busy working on how to take this unique show on the road. As I discuss in the story, there were a lot of obstacles they had to overcome, and a plenty of unknowns about how the instruments would handle the rigors of the road.
Seeing the instruments themselves close up was very cool. Imagine a vibraphone and a marimba with a mallet on every note. Or an acoustic guitar with a little wheel with six picks on it—the wheel designed to spin around and pick the strings as it receives note-on and note-off messages that are translated by its electronics from MIDI data sent by Metheny''s guitar or the computer. Or a drum set, separated into its various parts, all hanging on a rack with sticks attached by mechanical contrivances, ready to strike. It was a memorable visit, and I certainly recommend you check out the album and go see the tour if you can.
On another subject, I wanted to mention that we have a new back page column debuting this month called “Back Talk.” In it you''ll get a quick-hitting Q&A with a musician, artist, or producer. This month, it''s a chat with Simon Franglen, one of the synth programmers for Avatar. He talks about the production of the music for that movie, composer James Horner''s complex score (one cue had 200 tempo changes), and the synths that he used. For more of the interview with Franglen, you can go to emusician.com, where we have a podcast posted. Wherever possible, we hope to provide supplemental interview material online for our “Back Talk” interviews.
This new column is just one of several that we''ll be introducing during the next couple of months. I''m very excited about them, and I think you will be, too. So stay tuned.