Much is written these days of the sometimes uncomfortable marriage of music and technology whether discussing the manner the current generation accesses and listens to music or the way it is recorded. It is refreshing then to discuss technology and music and technology in music in reference to Pat Metheny's Orchestrion and its companion piece The Orchestrion Project.
Orchestrion was released in 2010, a five-track album composed to allow the jazz virtuoso to explore his lifelong fascination with player pianos and other early automated instruments. It took years to assemble this one-man band because we aren't talking about 21st century technology. These aren't synthesizers and computers processing sounds through ProTools but instead a series of traditional instruments being commanded by solenoids and foot pedals.
The Orchestrion Project was released as a DVD and companion CD and it is fascinating to watch and listen as this complex creation surrounds him, each instrument simultaneously executing their task as Metheny plays his guitar. What makes this so exhilarating and remarkable is that if the myriad possibilities opened to him and possible limitations of this methodology limited him, you can't hear it in the music. This would have been a worthwhile endeavor on an academic level, an exciting experiment to see if it can be done but it's so much more than that.
Project features songs from Orchestrion as well as other Metheny compositions and improvisations. Those of us who don't consider ourselves part of the jazz cognoscenti often feel intimidated in approaching the idiom but that doesn't come into play here. These songs exist within and beyond the genre and we, the more casual listeners, can marvel at both the brilliant music and unusual manner employed to create it without feeling lost or some external pressure to understand it.
"Stranger In Town" from We Live Here and "Sueño Con Mexico" from New Chautauqua stand as two great examples of previous work being fitted to this robotic ensemble and they feel as natural as songs like "Entry Point," "Spirit In The Air," and "Orchestrion" from the Orchestrion album. Metheny's guitar dazzles as he introduces, explores, and improvises themes and melodies in long form and has created beautiful textures to support them with this fantastical "band."
It's amazing he was able to do this at all in a studio and more so that he actually took his orchestrion on the road and performed this way in front of audiences. I hope for a third installment from this chapter of his career: a live album capturing those shows. Until that happens -- if that happens -- we have two wonderful exhibitions of a master musician challenging himself and pushing himself in wondrous ways.