Pat Metheny on the Orchestrion
This project represents a conceptual direction that merges an idea from the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the technologies of today to create a new, open-ended platform for musical composition, improvisation, and performance.
“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. 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.
As a little kid, every few summers we would go visit my grandparents in Manitowoc, Wisconsin – my mom’s hometown. My grandfather (Delmar Bjorn Hansen) was a great musician, a brilliant trumpet player and singer whose love of harmony was a strong early influence. Upon arrival at their family house, I would make a beeline to the basement, where one of the family’s most prized possessions was kept: a then-50-plus-year-old player piano, complete with boxes of piano rolls of all kinds of music. I would spend hours there with my cousins trying each roll, pumping until we were worn out by the pedals.
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 works 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?”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, with the emergence of player pianos (pianos played mechanically by moving rolls of paper through a mechanism that physically moved the keys), the next logical step was to apply that same principle to a range of orchestral instruments, often including percussion and mallet instruments. These large instrument arrays were called orchestrions.
Orchestrions flourished in the era that directly preceded the advent of sound recordings. In many ways, that period of time stands as an interesting middle zone; the first technology that brought a performer to an audience once removed, while retaining the essential characteristics of that performer’s message.
The Orchestrion Project
In 1978, I made a record called New Chautauqua, which was a session built upon the idea of using the studio itself as an instrument by layering several guitars on top of each other to create an ensemble sound. The only problem was that it was impractical to do this live. It has since become possible using live looping technology (sampling) to create a viable platform for a limited version of what one can do in a studio in real time, but for the kinds of shifting harmonic environments that I love, there are restrictions in that method.
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.
One of the by-products of being a musician who grew up in the late 20th century who also happens to be a guitar player is that I have quite naturally lived a parallel life of deep immersion in the world of music technology. (I often joke that my first musical act with an electric guitar was to “plug it in” – knobs and wires being the same to me as mouthpieces, bows, reeds, and drumsticks are to other musicians.) Alongside the information revolution that has affected all of our lives over the past 40 years, we have also lived through a revolution in the way music can be made that is almost overwhelming. Yet, at the same time, as enthusiastic as I have been about the orchestral potential of synths and electric instruments in general, and even as those instruments have improved enormously and continue to develop, the whole idea of jamming a mix of polyphonic sounds into a single set of stereo speakers has never been as satisfying to me as a single instrument going into a single discrete amplification system (electric guitar) or especially, the power of acoustic instruments and sound.
I have never seen any of these sound components – electric or acoustic in nature – as being mutually exclusive. In fact, the exciting thing for me has been the combinations possible using available sounds and dynamic levels of all kinds – from the quietest of the quiet, to the loudest of the loud.
The New Orchestrion
For a number of years leading to this project, I have been gathering the forces of a group of talented inventors and technicians from around the country, and commissioning them to construct a large palette of acoustic sound-producing devices that I can organize as a new kind of orchestrion.
A small number of musicians have been doing things like this in recent years as the mechanics of it all have 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.
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 an inspiration and a major defining element for me in the music’s evolution at every key point along the way.
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 2010.
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 quest 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.