Pat Metheny: Why is his music so interesting?


I have just spent an hour or so listening to a ‘best of Pat Metheny‘ collection on Spotify. Having been listening to this man’s music for around 30 years now, it is crazy to think some of the tracks that impacted me then – still do today. Without getting too involved in the dialogic between philosophers such as Plato (who would have argued that the music that touches us is a physical representation of a perfect/spiritual ‘World of Forms’) and Hagel on the one side (who would have argued that it was part of a disparate chronological system that is moving toward unified perfection), and Husserl and Heidegger on the other (who sort of believed in reality being based on individual perception) – why do I still like this music?? Why does this music mean so much to me??

It seems to me thinking as a musicologist, his music is interesting on both a primary (the formal structures of the music, how it resonates with itself and other music) and secondary (how the music conveys emotion and relates to factors such as technology, visual gesture, etc) level. Jean-Jacques Nattiez has an interesting model which differentiates between these levels. As this is a short post, I will try and explain in as few words as possible.

The Poietic: How the music was constructed. With Metheny, it is possible to consider factors such as the construction of his solos, his sound, the way he uses a band as a compositional tool etc. However, perhaps the most significant and interesting example of late is apparent in his Orchestrion project. Imagine how much depth one could get into talking about this!!!



The Immanent:The actual structures of the music – it’s descriptive qualities. One of the things I have found most interesting about his music is it sounds so melodic, but it has a sometimes hidden complexity. If anyone has looked at The Pat Metheny Songbook, you will get a feel for how this music works on a notational level. From here you can look at things like the form of the music, the instrumentation, the ways that texture is employed etc.

The Ethesic: The ways in which the music is received. If we do this in a progressive  manner, we can ask questions such as: what impact does the music have on me? why does the music make me feel like this? Does the music have a life that is beyone Metheny’s intentions

Nattiez would argue that in order for the music to have primary signification, it has to resonate with all three of these categories. In other words the music’s making, structure and reception has to be apparent. If one of these areas are missing (how the music was constructed for example) – this has the potential to be signified at the secondary level. For example when writing about Metheny a while ago – I wrote the following – all of which is secondary

“I would suggest that Metheny has done more than anyone to redefine the jazz aesthetic. Almost from his first album in the mid 1970′s, his music not only portrayed a totally identifiable and original guitar style, but also an open-mindedness regarding what jazz can be. I have always been fascinated about the way that he (and other musicians) uses technology to formulate his music both in the studio and live, but his ‘Orchestration’ album takes this process to a new level’. Not only is he able to perform alongside himself in the ‘virtual’ manner he achieved on Watercolours  (1977) New Chautauqua (1979), but this time alongside a more embodied version of himself. Building on the work of guitarists such as John Mclaughlin and Larry Coryell, Metheny’s music and image has created not only a new definition for what jazz can sound like, but also the processes regarding its construction and visuals. To my mind he has to be considered one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, and I can only plead with the people who consider and construct the histories of jazz to give him the great respect he deserves.”

Well that’s it for this post – time to have a rest over the weekend.


About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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