Yes, you seem to have wholeheartedly embraced technology while some of your peers have rejected it out of hand.
Well, yeah, but on the other hand it’s not like a piano grows out in the forest by itself, you know. The saxophone and trumpet either. The actual fact is that musical instrument technology on all fronts has a lot to do with music that each culture has produced. The technology of the time becomes ultimately the platform that a lot of people who become musicians need to operate within in order to do their thing. As it happens, in my case I kind of chronologically paralleled what will kind of go down in history as one of the major periods of musical instrument evolution until now. I mean what has happened over the last 40 years in terms of what you can do as a musician, of course using electronics primarily; it’s like the Industrial Revolution. It’s just like there was a way of doing it before and then everything changed in a massive kind of way. And I’ve been on the front line for that whole thing.
A couple of albums ago you pioneered the orchestrion (on the album, ‘Orchestrion’) a mind-boggling orchestral version of the Player Piano. That seemed like a crazy idea initially. Did it seem to you outlandish to put such a thing together?
Well, if there was any remaining doubt that I am slightly a weird guy that project put that to rest once and for all.
Do you think that you will revisit the orchestrion in the future?
Well, you know, on the other hand, my interest in that was really born out of exactly what we were talking about just before – which is I have lived on the frontline of all this tech stuff and yes, I have lived in the world of speakers from day one. I often joke: my first musical act was to plug it in, you know. Knowing about cables and knobs and power amps and pre-amps and all this stuff is like what reeds and mouthpieces are like for horn players. This has been the thing. But I have also recognised what all of this is: this includes your readership. We’re talking about speakers. We’re talking about sound coming out of speakers – whether it’s 24-bit, 16-bit, 96K, whatever. We’re talking about something that is the speaker vibrating in the air. As a guitar player, yes, me too; I’m there with amps and everything that can go between the guitar and the amp and I’m down with all of that. But I also know very well the feeling of sitting in a room and playing acoustic guitar and what happens and what that is and how that is different than any way than that gesture can ever be rendered through a speaker. And as much there are ways that you can interface the two, they are fundamentally different things. I love the front end of the 21st century. I love being able to manipulate music the way that we can with a computer using a programme like Sibelius. I love having platforms like Pro Tools and Digital Performer, all these things. I love that and that’s great but the output side of it has not changed for decades now. And that output is speakers. I really feel that there will be a way to have output at some point – I don’t know if it will be in my lifetime or my kids’ lifetime – and it will not be speakers. It will be a different way of doing it. The orchestrion for me is in many ways connected to the thing that happened right before speakers which was Player Pianos. That was the first time the composer could offer his music to a room full of people and not be there. And that particular output device, a player piano, is one that was almost immediately completely abandoned when recorded sound emerged. It was sort of like: “oh, ok, we can do this with microphones, speakers and magnetic analogue representations of sound. This is the way to go.” For me, that idea of having the player piano be an output device for your musical ideas is still a very rich way of thinking about what it is to be a musician or a composer. My idea with the orchestrion was what else could I manifest in a way that doesn’t use a speaker but is acoustic in nature? And, you know, I kind of followed this world closely over the years: I learned that there were these hipster guys in Brooklyn who thought that they were making robotic instruments and then there were these old guys who were still making replacement parts for the original orchestrions, which were sort of the next stage after player pianos. They’re all doing the same thing even though none of them think that they’re doing the same thing but they really are and I kind of gathered together what to me were the best, most viable, mechanical ways of doing this and organising them together and did that record and that tour. Yes, now that I’ve done it, and the other nine people on the planet who are building instruments along these lines – who also weren’t really aware of what other people were doing but somehow became aware of my thing and saw it kind of like in the zone of what they were doing… I’d love to gather those instruments together in addition to what I’ve already got and so now I know a lot more about how to do it. So yeah, maybe in four or five years I’ll do a whole other project but in the meantime it has become sort of a viable part of the platform for me: it’s all over this John Zorn record that came out earlier (‘Tap: John Zorn’s Book Of Angels, Vol. 20’). And it’s all over this new record. It’s even in the first Unity Band record in a kind of improvisational way. So yeah, it’s in there for me.
So what’s in the pipeline after this album because you seem to be a guy who’s several steps ahead of his listeners in terms of your musical direction.
I’ve found that it is best to wait until the thing is really the thing before saying what it’s going to be. I mean, you’re right: I’ve got a million ideas… I always have a lot of ideas. On the other hand, what I’m really looking at right now is that we’re going to do about 200 concerts around the world so I’m kind of shifting over now from the conceptualist zone to the execution zone and also, in a lot of ways that’s the most fun part and the easiest part for me. When you’re sitting in a room trying to come up with ideas and writing music and trying to formulate some new platform for doing something in, it’s like you’re in a room by yourself and hoping you’re coming up with ideas and when you make a record now you’ve got a community of a few guys and you’re there and working on the record and it still sort of a thing. But then when you go play, there are all these people that come and they are bringing a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Then the gig starts and you do your best and then the gigs over and you don’t have to worry about anything until the gig tomorrow night. That’s part of the attraction for me of going out on the road and playing a lot is that it starts a life of its own. It’s the icing on the cake for me.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
Well, you know, man, it’s so hard to say because I’ve had so many great experiences playing, in many ways, with the greatest musicians of our time – or at least my favourite musicians out there. If you see the list of the guys that I’ve done something with (which includes everyone from Ornette Coleman and Chick Corea to Joni Mitchell and David Bowie) it’s also a list of my favourite musicians; of guys that I’m the biggest fan of. So I couldn’t really single out anything. To me, it’s all been one big long thing. It’s all connected and each aspect of it has really just been fantastic for me so it’s like that.
‘KIN’ BY THE PAT METHENY UNITY GROUP IS RELEASED BY NONESUCH ON 3RD FEBRUARY 2014