The Orchestrion Project by Pat Metheny
"Orchestrionics" is the term that I am using to describe a method of developing ensemble-oriented music using acoustic and acoustoelectric musical instruments that are mechanically controlled in a variety of ways, using solenoids and pneumatics. With a guitar, pen or keyboard I am able to create a detailed compositional environment or a spontaneously developed improvisation, with the pieces on this particular recording leaning toward the compositional side of the spectrum. On top of these layers of acoustic sound, I add my conventional electric guitar playing as an improvised component.
At least for me, this takes the term "solo record" into some new and interesting areas, somewhat recontextualizing the idea of what constitutes a solo performance by a single musician. This project is the result of a lifelong dream in this area that dates back to my early youth.
The idea of an instrument like this, capable of playing just about anything mechanically, was totally mind-blowing to me. It was something utterly charming; on one hand it was old-fashioned but, at the same time, almost like science fiction. Throughout the years, that early fascination has grown and I have studied the tradition of these kinds of instruments, including the orchestrions of the early 20th century that took this idea further. Using various other orchestral instruments mechanically tethered to the piano/piano roll mechanism to develop ensemble sounds, a miniature orchestra was possible.
But considering the repertoire that was usually called upon when these instruments were played (Conlon Nancarrow and George Antheil's work were sadly and largely absent from the world in which I grew up, or at least from my grandfather's basement), I would often find myself asking over the years, "What might happen if the potentials of these instruments were looked at now-particularly informed by the harmonic and melodic advances in jazz of the past 70 or 80 years? Could I make some kind of personal statement using instruments like these?"
Over the years I have dreamed of coming up with an environment to write that uses the "front end" of modern music technology while harnessing the power of actual acoustic instruments.
The New Orchestrion
A small number of musicians have been doing things like this in recent years as the mechanics of it all has evolved, particularly with the advent of modern solenoid technology. And naturally, in many ways, much of the experimentation and research in this area has been as much about the technology as the musical result. My only goal here, however, is a musical one.
This general area of interest has felt like fertile, relatively unexplored territory. And especially now, nearly ten years into the new century, it has felt like the ideal moment to create something particularly connected to the reality of this unique period in time, using the best of the past with the potential of the future.
The issue of context is crucial to this project. As much as I have and will continue to enjoy playing in traditional formats (solo, duets, trios, quartets and quintets, various large ensembles, the Pat Metheny Group-however one might place that in this spectrum-as an occasional sideman, etc.), the urge to investigate what might be possible in this secluded corner of musical instrument lore has been building in me. And it has proven to be a particularly inspiring zone of research that has led me to some new places. I don't see this as being something better or worse than any of the other formats that I enjoy playing in-but it is definitely something different.
One of the inspiring hallmarks of the jazz tradition through the decades has been the way that the form has willfully ushered in fresh musical contexts, resulting in new performance environments for players and composers. This pursuit of change, and the way that various restless souls along the way have bridged the roots of the form with the new possibilities of their own time, has been a major defining element for me in the music's evolution at every key point along the way.
From new combinations of sounds and new performance techniques to technological shifts in the instruments first deployed in jazz settings (the drum set, the use of the saxophone, the modification and adaptation of European classical instruments, the electric guitar, etc.) to large-ensemble presentation and composition (big bands, etc.), jazz musicians have often been the ones trying new things, looking for new sounds. This quest, in tandem with the generation of deep and soulful content, has made the story of jazz a fascinating journey.
As has been the case several times along the way for me, I found myself craving context that connected to this larger tradition, while longing for a way to reconcile those impulses with the opportunities intrinsic to this particular moment in time-to find something that could only be happening now, in 2011.
Ray Kurzweil, one of the most visionary thinkers in the world, was asked recently about his work in the area of artificial intelligence, and I thought his response to a question that was essentially something to the effect of "Why do you do this?" was right on. His response was to indicate the important ways throughout history that new tools have allowed us to "extend our reach."
In my life as a player there has never been a substitute for musical depth, informed by the experiences of a lifetime and with the quest to invoke the spirit and soul that is core to being the kind of musician that I have aspired to become. I often say that whether it is developed and performed acoustically or otherwise, with a ten-dollar instrument or sophisticated computer system, good notes are good notes-and are almost always elusive in whatever path one might take to find them. Yet good notes, once revealed, seem to carry their own intrinsic value with them forward, however they came to be. While in pursuit, many times along the way the experience of a new challenge or the search for a new way of looking at things-or a new tool-has allowed me (encouraged me? forced me?) to uncover and ask hard questions of myself as a musician.
As the instruments started to trickle in from the various inventors, the experience of writing for them and figuring out what might be possible with them provided a self-imposed challenge that proved to be difficult and time-consuming, but absolutely exhilarating. I am excited to share this project. If nothing else, this has turned out to be something unique. And in the process of developing all this music and these instruments and discovering what they can do and what they are good at, I learned so much. It feels like progress and has gotten some notes out of me that I didn't know were there. But the surprise was just how far I was able to go with it all. Within this new environment, I found something in there that took me to some new places. I hope you too will enjoy it.