DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Pat Metheny, guitar – The Orchestrion Project, 3D Blu-ray (2012)

A unique production matching the top electric guitarist against an assembly of mechanical instruments.

Published on November 23, 2012

Pat Metheny, guitar – The Orchestrion Project, 3D Blu-ray (2012) 

Program: Unity Village, The Orchestrion Suite, Sueno Con Mexico, Improvisation #2, Stranger in Town; Bonus Songs: Improvisation #1, 80/81 – Broadway Blues, Tell Her You Saw Me, Antonia
Directors: Pierre & Francois Lamoureux
Studio: Metheny Group Productions/ Eagle Rock EV83033421 [10/9/12]
Video: 1.77 for 16:9 1080p HD 3D
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 & 7.1, PCM stereo
Extras: (2D) The Marking of the Orchestrion Project, Interview with Pat Metheny, Original EPK studio sessions: Orchestrion / Expansion
Length: 173 min.
Rating: ***** 

Well, this is certainly a unique production. Metheny says in his comments in the extras that many people thought he was crazy when he explained the whole idea to them, and some may think this Blu-ray is crazy too. I think it’s fascinating. Metheny said the whole thing really began when he was a child and visited some relative who had a working player piano. He spent a lot of time under it, figuring out how it worked and inspecting all of the mechanism.

Now, after a very successful career as one of the most imaginative electric guitarists around, Metheny has assembled a vast collection of mechanical instruments that he had various artisans create for him, plus a Yamaha Disklavier Piano. Here is the list from the Blu-ray box: piano, marimba, vibraphone, orchestra bells, basses, guitarbots, percussion, cymbals, drums, blown bottles, robotic Angeli guitar, and other custom-fabricated acoustic mechanical instruments. So this is in fact a collaboration between the master guitarist and an assembly representing the pinnacle of mechanical music today. The primary focus is the five-movement Orchestrion Suite which debuted on Metheny’s two-CD Nonesuch album of 2010, which we reviewed.  The concert opens with a number from Metheny’s debut solo album Bright Size Life of 1976: “Unity Village.”

Metheny toured in 2010 with the whole Orchestrion, and this Blu-ray was filmed in 3D in an abandoned church in Brooklyn since then. He says in the interviews that the setup of the gear differs from that he used for the Nonesuch recording session and the national tours. Before he had the instruments in mostly a straight line behind him, while for the filming they placed them in a sort of circle around Metheny and his guitar, which makes things more interesting both visually and with the surround effects of the 5.1 or 7.1 surround tracks. There are also little lights on some of the instruments which light up when they operate; I’m not sure if the tour setup included those. It can help identify which ones are playing at any time, in connection with the very clear and hi-res surround track. There’s no audience but the camera crew and sound people.

There are other similar projects, which Metheny failed to mention during his interview, such as the amazing mechanical instrument array of the sound-artist Trimpin. Although the interaction of Metheny and his guitar with the Orchestrion makes it a special sort of situation (most of Trimpin’s systems are just set up in a gallery and just play themselves continually or are controlled by people coming in), Trimpin did do some actual performances with the Kronos Quartet. Also, Metheny didn’t build his Orchestrion instruments himself, and Trimpin does – mostly out of junk.

The music is often different from what one might be familiar with on Metheny’s various albums. He’s clearly a musical genius at what he does, and he seems to work beautifully with the various mechanical instruments. He says that since re-takes were possible, he could take chances and often do some astonishing things with pieces, informed by his experiences doing the same pieces over and over again at various live performances on stage. Some listeners, however, might find it all rather similar and more suitable for background listening. The four selections in the Bonus Songs section seem to have more interaction between Metheny’s guitar and specific mechanical instruments in the Orchestrion. In one of them he sets up one guitar to play a continuing ostinato over which he then plays variations on a second similar guitar. The lighting varies greatly, sometimes almost in the dark to brilliant lighting effects. The aspect ratio of the shooting is either 1.66:1 or 1.77:1 – I find both listed various places (and nothing on the box). This results in two very narrow bordering bars on the left and right of 16:9 screens. 1.66 is used for many European films, but I don’t recall ever seeing those bars on DVDs or Blu-rays of them. The quality is high, with the 3D camera often moving on a crane and showing many different angles on the Orchestrion, with Metheny and his guitar in the middle. The 3D effects are natural, the closeups interesting, and the whole thing is made more visually interesting.

One thing that frustrated me about the project was that although Metheny was asked (by title questions that came on prior to sections of the interview) exactly how he controls all these mechanical instruments with his single electric guitar, he never answered that one. There are only two cables coming out of his guitar, so one wonders what triggers the various instruments all around him. Obviously, it can’t be all realtime control—some of it has to be created by computer-controlled scores. Also, I was wishing he had spent a bit of time in the extras with each of the instruments of the Orchestrion, showing exactly how they worked and what they sounded like. He does mention a few of them, but not in detail. One rack of shelves had little vases and other knick-knacks that never seemed to do anything; I was curious whether they were just window-dressing or actually made sounds.

—John Henry




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