Pat Metheny has already worked with most of the world’s most talented musicians, so his newest collaboration project had to branch out a little – he’s making sweet music with robots. The famous jazz guitarist has assembled a remarkable robotic orchestra composed of a room full of solenoid and pneumatically driven instruments. Dubbed The Orchestrion Project, the robot ensemble represents a unique attempt to expand musicality into both automated and directed machines. Each instrument follows input from Metheny, allowing him to improvise with his own unique musical style. Metheny has already produced a record using his robot orchestra and is launching a world tour this month. Check out the delightful press video for The Orchestrion Project below.
The Orchestrion Project gets its name, and its creative origins, from the mechanically automated orchestras created since the late 1700s. Those early orchestrions expanded on the concept of a player piano allowing for the automated playing of music across multiple instruments. Metheny was inspired by these mechanical ensembles and by the advancing promise of technology. This is a musician who regularly refers to the concepts of Ray Kurzweil to help explain his own work. The creation of mechanical acoustic devices has continued right into the present, but Metheny has taken the idea into a different direction. Rather than simply arrange a musical composition to be played across multiple instruments, he organically builds the voice of each instrument using his improvisational riffs on the guitar. In a sense he’s created a live version of an elaborate over-dubbing studio session wherein he is playing and responding to his improvisation as it is expressed in other instruments. Looks complicated, sounds amazing:
As Metheny describes in related videos on his website, it took a large team of inventors to provide all of the automated instruments in his Orchestrion Project. There’s a Yamaha Disklavier, a bottle ensemble created by the Peterson Company, an electric bass by Ken Caulkins, and many more. Each instrument is acoustic or acoustic-electric, providing for a rich and full sound that synthesizers would be unable to fully mimic in a concert environment.
Yet looking at the expansive set of instruments in The Orchestrion Project, I am still unable to shake the feeling that it will soon be able to fit onto a single laptop. Yes, current synthesized instruments are still not quite able to grasp the chaotic and realistic sound of live instruments. But sound recognition and reproduction continue to advance. Digital visual productions have already started to surpass the resolution of the human eye, digital sound productions are likely to follow suit. Each instrument in Metheny’s orchestion is essentially hand crafted and has a unique tone/voice. But give us a few years and we may be able to reproduce such chaotic qualities, letting each digital instrument mimic live/acoustic versions so well that no human would be able to distinguish between them.
Which means the real innovation for The Orchestrion Project is not in the robots themselves, but in Metheny’s choice to use them. In a way, as Metheny builds a piece of music with his ensemble he is layering a dozen interactions with his own playing. It’s like he has multiple sets of hands and ears spread out through space and time, each playing a portion of the music, and then blends these disparate voices back together to make the performance. It’s Metheny multiplied. And that’s a theme we’ve seen with other robotic bands, such as Patrick Flanagan’s drum ensemble. This resounding reproduction amplifies one musician’s work across an entire orchestra, and it provides a new level of creative possibilities for everyone to explore. Humans may need that increased potential as AI musicians (those that actually compose their own work) are becoming ever more sophisticated. Looking at the Orchestrion Project I can’t help but think that if Metheny is willing to work with robots today, he may be collaborating with computers tomorrow. Sounds like a good idea to me.
[image credit: Pat Metheny Media]