[Dixielandjazz] Terminator 4 - The rise of the Orchestrions

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon May 24 06:18:55 PDT 2010

We have met the enemy and they is us.

Steve Barbone

May 23, 2010 - NY TIMES - By Ben Ratliff
If Not 76 Trombones, Everything Else a One-Man Band Can Handle

Imagine a player piano. Now imagine you’re a guitarist and composer  
named Pat Metheny and that you have a kind of player piano that can  
both play what you’ve composed for it — not through perforated paper  
but digital technology — and also replicate whatever you’re playing on  
the guitar. You can also play a long phrase on the guitar and command  
the piano to loop the phrase, so that you can play against the loop.

Now for the big leap. There’s not just a piano. There are two pianos.  
There’s also a vibraphone; a marimba; a groaning array of drums,  
cymbals and shakers; an acoustic guitar and bass; eight individual one- 
string guitar robots; and two apothecary shelves of glass bottles  
filled with liquid at different levels, which produce a vocal-ish  
sound from jets of air blown therein. A wink of light flashes wherever  
a sound happens.

You’ve called it an orchestrion, referring to the no-hands, multi- 
instrument contraptions made in the 50 years or so before the advent  
of recording technology. You’ve done it mostly with solenoids —  
transducers that use electromagnetic energy — and the rest with  

You’re the only human onstage at Town Hall on Friday. You’ve got your  
foot pedals and five or six guitars, but also there’s an orchestrion  
behind you, under wraps — instruments in cages and carpentry, on rods  
and risers — and 1,500 people before you.

They’ve never seen anything quite like this before. It’s best not to  
overwhelm them, so you begin with solo guitar: several pieces you’ve  
recorded over the last three years with Brad Mehldau, and a song  
(“Unity Village”) from your first album. It’s pretty strummy, a lot of  
parallel chords. Then you un-tarp the imaginarium, the crowd says,  
“Whoa!,” and you start activating things.

You haven’t compromised in the music for “Orchestrion,” the new  
Nonesuch recording of this colossus: a suite, through-composed,  
rhythmically complex, Brazilian-ish in parts, powered by the  
counterpoint of mallet instruments, with sections of static harmony as  
an open background for your guitar solos. It’s very dense, though.  
You’ve made that machine prove itself. The biggest challenge — as it  
was for the player-piano industry — is rhythm and dynamics. How do you  
make rhythm sound comfortable, and not as if it’s made by a robot?

You introduce maximum bend and bounce into the mallets so there’s a  
little pliancy to the beat and attach different kinds of strikers to  
every cymbal: a stick and a mallet for each, programmed to hit the  
cymbal at staggered intervals, presumably so that you don’t feel  
drilled by only one sound, one color. Except for some of the drumming  
it sounds pretty much like people playing these instruments; it seems  
to push robotic humanism to the limit. There are no wind instruments  
here, or fake voices (not counting the bottle-whooshing). That would  
be too much.

All these tiny decisions! The hardware, the mechanics. The expense.  
You provide an overall explanation, because people will riot if you  
don’t, but can you even try to break it down? “To really explain takes  
three hours,” you say, pre-emptively.

Instead, about 90 minutes in now, you do something much different from  
the composed orchestrion music. You play some improvisations with the  
orchestrion, some of them your own, but some on Ornette Coleman  
themes, including “Broadway Blues.” Now it seems that the specificity  
of your attack on the guitar — whether and how you strum a chord or  
pick a note — determines the texture of the orchestral sounds that  
result from it. How it all works remains unclear, but the audience  
understands it better. It’s still lunacy, but it breathes. The  
orchestrion has humor and elegance. It’s quite possible that a  
listener is thinking, for the first time that evening, “I could do  

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