First Look: Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Project

Last night we dropped by the 7.1-equipped 3D theater in Dolby's midtown offices for a sneak peek at Francois and Pierre Lamoureux's Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Project, the forthcoming theatrical 3D film of jazz legened Pat Metheny's latest "solo" outing with his mechanical orchestra.

The Orchestrion is an assemblage of computer-controlled acoustic instruments, all driven from Metheny's guitar via MIDI. The guitarist has been at work on the project for the better part of a decade, commisioning teams of robot builders from around the country to create a wide variety of stunning robotic performers. Amazingly, the system is sensitive enough to preserve Metheny's signature sound and really does get across his harmonic and melodic vision.

The film captures the Orchestrion in action at the church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that Metheny uses as a rehearsal space. It's only the second 3D, 7.1 project to ever see release (it follows the Lamoureuxs' Satchurated, the Joe Satriani concert film released earlier this year, though the Orchestrion film was actually shot first).

The Lamoureuxs' 3D cinematography is subtle, highlighting Pat Metheny in the environment and occasionally enhancing perspectives, but for the most part it doesn't call too much attention to itself. As Pierre Lamoureux put it during the Q+A that followed the screening, it seemed "like stereo miking, a real audio perspective on cinematography."

The staging is on the one hand naturalistic, with some of the camera and lighting rigging and many of the microphones visible in wide shots, but that makes sense given the amount of machinery onstage - think if if as a steampunk aesthetic - but lit as if it were a stage production. Shadows are deep and dark, and the robots themselves are more atmosphere than anything else (and they were rarely featured in close up; I would have liked a more intimate perspective on the machinery itself, but maybe I'm just a nerd).

I was reminded more than a few times of the classic video for Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," another jazz legend's venture into man-machine interaction, though that piece's sense of cool alienation (both visual and aural) is absent here; Metheny's very much at home with his instruments (and underscoring that, he's dressed casual for most of the film, in running shoes and a t-shirt as he might be for a day of rehearsal) the sonics are clearly Metheny's a warm mix of acoustic and electric guitars and smallest, in a harmonic and rhythmic universe that's at once post-fusion and post-Steve Reich.

Pierre Lamoreux remarked that on seeing the Orchestrion in action for the first time he felt "it was like a modern Jules Verne, a Dr Frankenstein in the beautiful sense, in that he wanted to create something beautiful," and what we get here is close to that, Pat the mad scientist (his eternally amazing hair definitely lends itself to the role) in his lab, fantastically lit but clearly hard at work marshalling his robotic band. Metheny agreed: "If there's one thing this film will do, it's settle for once and for all just how weird I am."

While there are no computers visible in the performance (and Metheny told us that he thought "having laptops on stage was cool for about two seconds in 1998; now when I see it I just think the guy's checking his e-mail"), and there are no synth sounds employed, aside from Metheney's vintage Roland guitar synth solo on "Improvisation #2", digital control is at the heart of the Orchestrion. Metheny's guitar kicks out MIDI data, which is written into sequences and looped and processed on the fly using Ableton's Live software package.

That, of course, is a mode of performance that's being used by a number of forward-thinking electronic musicians;,what's unique here is that the playback is entirely mechanical and the instrumentation, activated by solenoids or pneumatics, is for the most part acoustic (a mechanized electric bass and a pair of electric guitar bots are part of the proceedings). The soundscape will be familiar to Pat fans; the mallet-heavy Orchestrion pieces sound like a natural evolution of his Steve Reich-influenced work on The Way Up; Metheny gives himself a bit more room here to stretch out as a soloist, however, pulling off perfect jaw-dropping run after perfect jaw-dropping run (the Lamoreux brothers joked repeatedly during the Q+A session following the screening that Metheny could just play the guitar longer than anyone they'd ever seen).

The sound mix, by Pete Karam, makes effective use of the 7.1 format, with the same subtle, understated approach adhered to by the directorial team. The instrumentation was spread liberally among the channels, with smallest and percussion in the rear channels doing a great job of enveloping the viewer in the Orchestrion. Metheny told us that he'd always felt stereo was too limiting a perspective ("it's better than mono," he admitted, but would go no further), and wanted to create a sense for the viewer that was "very much like me standing in the middle of it."

Karam said he "approached the project like a traditional live recording - [Metheny tech] David Oakes had built a lot of microphones onto the orchestrion, the main thing for me was adding a lot of room mics." And there's a ton of room sound in the mix, courtesy of the overhead Decca tree, visible in several shots, and the reflectivity of the space itself is in evidence - the film really does capture the sound of the high-ceilinged space.

The mix, Metheny said (and this was his first viewing of the finished film), sounded to him much like his onstage experience - which was, of course, the whole point. "A lot of the time you hear a surround mix, and you're putting your ear up to one speaker - and you ask 'is there anything coming outta here?' This isn't like that at all. We went all out!"

All in all, it's an impressive filmed concert experience; and if you don't get a chance to see the Orchestrion in action, experiencing it in the Lamoureux brothers' sensitive 3D staging, and in all of the lossless, multichannel warmth of Pete Karam's mix is the next best thing.