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(Nonesuch 516668 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/10/2010)
Here's a potentially metaphysical question: Can robots swing? Guitarist Pat Metheny plunges into the quandary in perhaps the most conceptually fascinating recording to be released many years, a CD called Orchestrion.
To backtrack a bit, swing is that virtually unquantifiable property of jazz and related music that gives it that quality that sets it apart. It's mostly rhythmic, but involves dynamics and techniques of playing that are extremely subtle but instantly recognizable by fans in its presence or absence. Electronic music, especially the sequenced synthesizer parts that are so ubiquitous in commercial pop, is salient in its absence of swing, even though it may have a pounding dance beat. So music that swings almost always involves acoustic instruments.
Now what if you had machines and computer sequences playing acoustic instruments? Flash back to the late Victorian era, and a blossoming of mechanical devices. The player piano emerged from that era -- just before the advent of the phonograph as a means to reproduce and distribute music. Put in a piano roll, consisting of holes punched in paper, and a pneumatic system would operate the keys of the piano and music would ensue. While the player piano was a kind of mass-market product, that period also produced some elaborate machines that played not only a piano but many other instruments mechanically. Many a merry-go-round would have such a device, and there were some other spectacular devices, sometimes known as orchestrions.
Pat Metheny, has for some 35 years, been one of the most creative musicians in almost any genre and an outstanding composer. When he was just growing up had a musician grandfather he would visit in Wisconsin from time to time. In the grandfather's basement was a player piano, and young Pat and his cousins would make a bee-line to the instrument and play all the rolls. Pat said he would try to figure out how it worked, studying the mechanism. So for most of his life, that player piano and the concept of a mechanically played instrument stayed with Metheny. Though he has played with his own group and many other musical configurations over the years, he did an album back in the late 1970s that consisted of overdubbing various guitar parts and playing all the instruments, But he obviously was unable to perform it live.
So over the years, Metheny talked to inventor friends and musical instrument technology people about creating a contemporary orchestrion, allowing him to play numerous parts simultaneously on essentially acoustic instruments. The result is an amazing assemblage of electro-mechanical devices that are a kind of a cross between a Victorian automaton and 21st century computer technology. Metheny notes the advance in the technology of solenoids, which are the devices which move when an electric current is applied. The solenoids are attached to drums, cymbals, vibes and other mallet instruments, orchestral bells, and to guitars to strum them automatically with electronically controlled frets. There is even what looks like a late 19th century medicine cabinet with antique bottles filled to various levels and blown pneumatically to create the low flute like-sounds one get when blowing across a soda bottle. Also part of Metheny's arsenal is a Yamaha Disclavier, an already-existing sophisticated electronically controlled grand piano.
Making all this work is the technology which allows a guitarist to control synthesizers by means of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI. So Metheny used both his guitar to control the orchestrion instruments live with some degree of expression, and uses computer sequences to have them play the accompaniment while he performs the lead parts on his guitars.
The result is absolutely fascinating: Very elaborate high tech controllers playing all-acoustic instruments in a setting that looks as if it might be at home at the dawn of the 20th century.
Metheny writes that while he always wanted to try something like this, the format was a challenge. But given Metheny's boundless musical acumen and very high standards, the result is very engaging and quite organic. In fact, the process became so seamless that if one didn't know the circumstances behind the recording, one would think it's Metheny with a kind of offshoot of his current group, which is perhaps the CD's only real drawback is that the sound is rather famliar to Metheny Group fans. Still, he explores the possibilities that his mechanical orchestra provides and creates a many-layered musical work.
The CD consists of five long pieces which are in Metheny's almost symphonic style of shifting moods and textures. It's interesting that in a number of cases, the composition would be a good fit for the Pat Metheny Group, and in fact some of the mechanically-generated sounds are similar to some of the synthesizer sounds his long time keyboard man Lyle Mays uses. The one area where the orchestrion seems to fall a bit short is in the percussion. The drums and cymbals do have a mechanical sound -- literally -- a bit stiff rhythmically and very uniform in dynamics. That might have to do with the technology, or perhaps because Metheny is not a drummer himself, especially compared to the sensitive and imaginative drums and percussion in his own group with Antonio Sanchez. But overall, the music is very satisfying and fully up to Metheny's standards, even if one did not know that his accompaniment was a bunch of electro-mechanical automatons.
The opening piece, called Orchestrion explores the possibilities of his technological agglomeration. It's an elaborate, rather trippy multi-movement work that in true Metheny fashion moves among a series of interesting musical textures, from a kind of bright and chipper section in which the mechanical percussion seems to be like twinkling lights <<>> to a jazzier section. <<>>
The following work, called Entry Point, is a more contemplative piece, in which the mechanical devices seem to melt into a remarkably organic sound, with subtle textures. The piece also shows the nice, wide dynamics that Metheny refers to as one of his goals in his extensive liner notes. <<>>
One of the instruments Metheny had built is a series of devices with a string on which a mechanical fret slides up and down. It rather emulates the sound of synthesizer bending a note. That is featured on the theme from track called Expansion. <<>> Of course, it's Pat Metheny, so the piece soon goes off in another direction and gets jazzy. It's probably the most convincing use of the electro-mechanical percussion to capture the feel of a real drummer. <<>>
Soul Search is the most laid-back piece on the CD, and though it's a wonderful piece of writing, here the mechanical drumming is not quite as convincing. <<>> The big test is on a part where the track breaks into a swing rhythm. My verdict is that it's not quite there yet. <<>>
The CD's closing track Spirit of the Air is a kind of classic Metheny-style composition, which is to say remarkably sophisticated with lots of changing textures, shifting, complex rhythms and skillful use of dynamics. <<>>
Pat Metheny's new CD Orchestrion is an absolutely fascinating recording. Consisting of a room full of one-of-a-kind inventions, combining 21st century digital and computer technology with a kind of Victorian array of mechanical instruments, controlled by Metheny at his electric guitar, this could have been a kind of novelty recording. But Metheny applied his formidable composing and arranging skills to make a very satisfying and musically coherent project, whose music would be absolutely top-notch irrespective of the way it was made. In fact, I could see these compositions fitting in well with the regular Pat Metheny Group.
Metheny will be embarking on an ambitious, even grueling tour with his orchestrion. As someone who has dealt with my share of technology over the years, I wish him the best, and that his roomful of machines will work reliably. Metheny is quoted as saying that this was to be his most expensive tour he has undertaken because of all the mechanical devices and their maintenance.
Now for my sound quality grade: the CD gets an A-plus. In his liner notes, Metheny remarks on how the acoustic instruments provide the potential for a wide dynamic range. The recording is absolutely wonderful in providing that full range between the soft and the loud. It seems to have been done with virtually no volume compression, which is almost heretical in these days when the loudness wars have lead to miserable audio on most CDs these days. Kudos to Metheny and his colleagues, and here's hoping against hope that it will serve as an example for others.
I started by asking the question "Can robots swing?" Though he may not have set out specifically to answer that Pat Metheny has devoted a remarkable level of energy to researching the notion. And I think I can say -- almost. And it was a really fun experiment.
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