Q & A
WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR THE ORCHESTRION PROJECT COME FROM?
The genesis of this project comes from my grandfather's basement. My mom's dad was a great musician; he had all kinds of instruments. He was a fantastic professional trumpet player, he was a banjo player, a great singer, and among the instruments in his collection was a player piano from the late 1800s and the early 1900s that were so popular when he was a kid. And he introduced me to that, and had lots of piano rolls, and I just thought it was the coolest thing. I, of course, loved to go to Wisconsin where they lived -- my Mom's home town was Manitowoc, Wisconsin -- every summer, anyway. But one of the highlights was getting to play with the player piano, and I used to get under there and get a flashlight and try to figure out how it worked, and I would unscrew things and screw them in. It was just fantastic for me to really get inside there and sort of imagine the mechanics of it.
I've always been interested in instruments like that. I've gone to many museums and gone to lots of exhibits and various concerts where people have presented player pianos and orchestrions of that era, and I've kind of tucked that away somewhere, and always imagined that it might be fun to try to look at those instruments through the prism of everything else that I've done in terms of harmony, and in terms of melody. It always struck me like: why did those instruments have to sound like that? Couldn't they sound like this? I always figured that this would be something that lots of people would be doing, and I'm kind of amazed that we've gotten to ten years into the twenty-first century and it hasn't really been explored that much.
There certainly have been a few people who have looked at this stuff, but not really people that are, I would say, in my general vicinity of those particular interests in music in terms of harmony and so forth. Certainly not at all with anything that involves improvisation (of this nature on the kinds of detailed forms and structures inherent to these pieces.)
So, with that idea in mind, over the past several years I've gone to a number of different inventor guys to build, essentially, this orchestra that you hear, that is all custom-made instruments just for this project, that I'm putting under the auspices of "The Orchestrion Project" or "Orchestrion."
WHAT IS AN ORCHESTRION?
"Orchestrions" were the namesake given to instruments that included the principal of player pianos, but expanded to other instruments that often included some kind of percussion, often mallet instruments. There were some wind-based instruments, like calliope pipes and that sort of thing.
And, essentially, that's what I've got going on here, too, with the addition of a few instruments that I would say are sort of indescribable, that would not have been possible back in those days. I'm thinking of the guitar bot, and there's an instrument that I had somebody make that has bottles that are blown with air that I don't think that they had gotten to that point back then.
But, once the instruments were on order, and the reality became clear that I was going to embark on this project, I had to learn lots of things -- about a lot of things -- that I didn't know before, and actually had never really come up before, even for the makers.
So the result of all this is this kind of wacky project that involves me playing with all of these instruments that are pretty much one-of-a-kind instruments, that add up to be the “Orchestrion.” And I use that term because it really describes exactly what was going on about a hundred years ago, brought into the twenty-first century.
HOW DO THESE INSTRUMENTS WORK?
These kind of instruments fall into two categories. The old way of doing this stuff was often based on a pneumatic source of energy, where air was forced through tubes that caused things to happen. In the recent years, let's say, since the invention of garage door openers, there have been solenoids that are quite powerful, that a brilliant guy named Eric Singer, who lives here in New York, kind of converted into a way of using MIDI -- which is a computer protocol that musicians have been using for twenty years or so now -- to speak in control voltage type terms to a mechanical solenoid to make it do things in a musical kind of way. Eric built many of these instruments, and the advantage of solenoids is that I can control things dynamically. The problem with a lot of previous pneumatic-type stuff is that you couldn't really get that much dynamic type control in a way that composers can get right to.
And solenoids opened up not a full dynamic range, but a usable dynamic range, and that's certainly something that I've worked on a lot in this project, is to give it that kind of breadth element and to get to those areas of swing and all those kinds of things that are really kind of impossible to get to without dynamics.
WHO ARE SOME OF THE OTHER INVENTORS?
So, there's solenoid instruments, there's pneumatic instruments, and, of course, the most sophisticated of these instruments in an instrument that's been around for a while, that most people have had contact with in hotel lobbies around the world (or weddings or wherever), which is the Yamaha Disklavier, which is certainly the most sophisticated solenoid-based instrument to date that's commercially available.
And there are several Disklaviers involved in this project. Yamaha has been incredibly supportive of the project and has provided me with an instrument for the recording that's beautiful, way better than my at-home model. And their technology is sort of the standard in a way that I'm measuring everything else to.
Among the other instruments that are here the Peterson Company in Chicago built this amazing … I guess you could call it a bottle ensemble. It's a group of blown bottles that are tuned chromatically that have just an amazing, beautiful sound. And Peterson is a company that's known for their tuners, but little known for all the work behind the scenes that they do with pipe organs. And, I got a gentleman on the phone there who understood exactly what I was looking for and kind of suggested this instrument as something that was within the realm of possibility. And I just kind of followed his lead and we have this gorgeous bottle organ.
Ken Caulkins has been deeply involved in this area for thirty-some years now; he has a company in California called Ragtime West, where he does the most amazing instruments you'll ever see, all in a more traditional pneumatic kind of way, but fascinating and beautifully made instruments of all kinds. He's done stuff for Disney World, he's done stuff for, I don't know, the Sultan of Brunei's daughter's wedding … I mean, he just does these wacky, huge projects, and has kind of cracked the whole thing of MIDI talking to these kinds of instruments from a completely different angle than the solenoid-kind of modern Brooklyn hipster guys, kind of like Eric and that crew. It's really been fun and interesting to sort of go between these two worlds that are kind of getting similar results, but from wildly different perspectives.
Ken's instruments really kind of came in near the end. I was sort of struggling in a way with a couple of things, bass in particular was a big challenge. Ken made an electric bass that's just unbelievable, that's on the whole record. I mean, that's kind of the bottom of the record, and the way he's doing it is just fascinating. He's made a bunch of percussion instruments, too, that figured in big time that are very accurate and have incredibly clear sounds and, he's got a whole bunch of other instruments that I have on my wish list now that I hope to maybe someday get to add to the ensemble.
WHAT HAS THIS EXPERIENCE BEEN LIKE?
This project is certainly going to go down as one of the weirder things I've ever attempted to do, and you know, I've got a few of them in there, and this is kind of in a whole other category. I have to say, all the way along every person has thought I was completely out of my mind, including my wife, who really thought I was out of my mind. I described it to her many times what I wanted to do, and she could not get it at all. And finally instruments that I had commissioned started to come in, and I remember one day finally having enough stuff there that I could play something for her, and she came in and she said, “Oh, now I see what you're talking about.” And that's kind of been everybody's response to this thing. I've tried writing about it, I've tried talking about it, I've tried telling people about it. Nobody really knows what I'm talking about until they hear it and see it.
And that's proven to be kind of fun. The thing that I like about this project -- amongst the million things that I've learned in it and the notes that it sort of coaxed out of me musically -- has been that everybody that sees and watches it and hears it starts smiling. It's just kind of funny in a way. It's a funny kind of wacky thing, but at the same time, once the notes start kicking in, it's sort of like: Yeah, it's funny, but you know, check this out. And that, to me, is a good combination of things.
So, The Orchestrion Project is kind of up and running now. We are at the point where … I wasn't sure if it was going to get this far in a way; I mean, it was a real leap of faith to do this. We got the record made, and had an incredible team for the record. Joe Ferla is one of the best engineers in the world; he signed on. Steve Rodby, who's worked with me on just about every project for thirty years now, helped enormously capturing all this stuff. We had just a great team of people that were able to bring this to life.
IS THERE MORE TO COME IN THE FUTURE?
I can already imagine a version two of this based on the things that I've learned so far. But it really is a fascinating kind of third area for me of interest, meaning that I do a lot of sort of straight ahead, let's say for lack of a better word, jazz, traditional jazz kind of playing. Certainly the regular Pat Metheny Group thing has been an area of vast, almost like a genre-free thing, where it could be anything we wanted it to be, but it was still built around a band concept and a band sound.
This is, to me, not better or not worse than anything else, but it really is different, and the different part of it is a big part of the attraction for me. And it's really, so far, proven to be a very fertile compositional zone, but live I think it's going to prove to be a pretty fertile improvisational zone, too. At the time that I'm speaking now, the tour hasn't started yet, but I've done enough research into it to know that I'm going to be able to get to some stuff sort of on the fly by just starting with blank pieces of sonic paper and I'm really looking forward to getting to all that, too.
NOW, AFTER THE RECORDING, AND BEFORE THE TOUR, WHAT'S YOUR OVERVIEW OF THE WHOLE THING?
Now that the record's done, the next thing is going to be to go out on the road and, you know, I've had many, many sleepless nights to add on to the other already sleepless nights of trying to get it to go. I have no idea what this is going to be like live; it might not happen at all, it might be terrible, I don't know. But, one thing I do know is that it's really different from anything else.
And at this point I feel like jazz guys, if I look at the whole tradition, were the guys that were always messing with things, and always trying different things. And sometimes it didn't work, and sometimes it doesn't work, but I feel like that part of the tradition is something that really needs to be kept alive. And I feel like, for a while now, jazz guys have not been keeping up their part of the bargain. It's just much too easy to do what we do and sort of do slight variations and modifications of this, and here's a little different version of that. I kind of wanted to go right down to the core and say, Okay, you know, what can I do that's just, you know, not of, you know, anything where I can say, or I can look to this or look to that as a reference. And if I'm looking to anything as a reference in this, it's kind of to my own kind of harmonic interest in the things that I like in music. I mean, that part is true. And, in fact, I had to pick a subject early on. I had to say: Okay, what's the theme here, because like with any band, you could do a million different things. I kind of took some time early on to figure out what this particular ensemble is good at, what can they do. And I kind of wrote for that, and sort of eliminated a bunch of other things by saying: Okay, they're not particularly good at that, and I don't want it to be all over the map. I want it to sort of be of a piece.
So I think there's a thematic core to all this that connects to everything else that I've done, even though the method of doing it is just different. And the result will ultimately be the result that it is. But in the meantime, it's just been incredible fun for me and I hope people that hear it will enjoy it, and I'm sure it will provoke many different responses. And it will be fun to see what those are.
But I also think that thirty, forty years from now, this will be probably … who knows what it will be like then. But, you know, I've kind of been on the front end of a bunch of things over the years. I'm sitting here in front of the Synclavier, which is still floating around, which was an instrument that thirty years ago was just revolutionary, and now every computer comes shipped with GarageBand that is probably a hundred times more powerful than the Synclav was back then. This will probably be something like that. And also, nobody really knows or remembers what it was like before there were instruments that did sequencing and all that.
And this may be something like that, too. I do feel like, you know … there's a great line that Eric Singer has -- and we know we're on the verge of something with robotics and that thing in general. Many people say robotics are right now where computers were in about 1976 -- Eric has a line, he said, Yeah, you know, robotics are coming, with instruments like these; now's our chance to get on their good side. I like that, and I feel that : Okay, so here we go. We're going to jump in there with this stuff.
And yet, at the same time, as I'm doing this (which we could say is very cutting edge or whatever), I look at what was going on a hundred and twenty, a hundred thirty years ago. They were already there. They were doing this. Just like any time you go to a musical instrument museum and you look at what people were doing in 1780 with guitars, there's nothing that anybody's going to come up with now that's any more expansive than those instruments.
So, you know, this is sort of a continuation of that. And, another one of my favorite quotes that I really love in terms of this particular project, because there's an obvious question here: Why? Why do this? I mean, it's true, I'm lucky I get to play with the best musicians in the world and have for many, many years, and I will continue to. This is not going to change anything. So why do this? And I think that there's a great Ray Kurzweil quote (because people are always asking him about artificial intelligence): Why work at that? Why look at that? And his response is that there's a kind of basic human desire to extend our reach through tools. And, this is just something that extends my reach. I can get to things, I can reach things that I was not not really able to reach. I mean, I don't think I would have written exactly these pieces exactly this way.
In that sense, I think that fulfills that urge to reach out and try new things. So, that's kind of what this has all been, and that's what The Orchestrion Project is all about, and I hope everybody will enjoy it.