Welcome back to the Noise Curmudgeon, and into the Mechanical Age

Welcome back to the Noise Curmudgeon.

This blog has been on a summer hiatus, but today returns with periodic postings.  The postings might be bi-weekly, but they are more likely to be monthly.  If you need a wee ‘fix’ about noise and sound during the month, check in to my Scoop.it site:  http://www.scoop.it/t/noise-and-sound.

The Mechanical Age

Today we will explore a dusty corner of “The Mechanical Age”, the era that brought science and technology together to build numerous machines that changed the world.


Thomas Carlyle wrote this biting critique of the Mechanical Age in 1829.

Arthur Schopenhauer, writing in 1851, revealed himself as a fierce noise curmudgeon.  Read his essay, ‘On Noise‘, here.

The Mechanical Age has been viewed by many anti-noise types as the horrid crashing and banging of the vulgar new 19th century, but it was also responsible for a number of ingenious inventions that could make music.

Let me introduce the Orchestrion.

What is an orchestrion? Look carefully at the word and you will notice the root in “orchestra”.  And that is what it is: a mechanical orchestra. The first one was built in 1805 (Wikipedia). As you can see and hear below, these machines are beautifully crafted wooden cabinets, full of instruments, and gears, and gizmos and who knows what – an off-shoot of  the early 20th century’s fascination with machines. (If only Henry Ford had thought to add a small version to his Model-Ts!)







Here you can hear one.  And here you can hear another one.

As you know, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century we used technology to develop other mechanical ways to make music available: gramophones, radio, vinyl records, tape, CDs, mp3s.  And thus orchestrions were shunted aside into little museums and dusty rooms. (There are a few in the Musee Mecanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, itself an interesting nod to all things entertaining and mechanical.)

BUT – in 2009, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny started his “Orchestrion Project”. Metheny is a self-confessed ‘gear head’ who loves to fiddle around with equipment and gear. His plan was to build on the idea of the old Orchestrions, by adding many other instruments to his mechanical arsenal.

Here you can read a piece about the project.  And here you can read Metheny’s own writings on the project.

As you can see in the picture below, his project was more than just a large cabinet of various instruments. This picture shows his Orchestrion in his studio in NYC.



There is a special point to be made about this project: one of Metheny’s goals was to be able to perform live shows with his Orchestrion, not just to use it in a studio.  He wanted to tour the project and so it was designed with this plan in mind. And so it came to be:


Here is a video with interviews of the people who worked with Metheny to design the instruments you see in the picture above.

So what does this Orchestrion sound like?  See/hear what you think.  In this video, Metheny discusses the project and you can hear how it sounds.

And here you can hear him improvising a piece with the Orchestrion, live! Quite amazing.

And here is a compilation of various pieces he performed on the tour.

And here is one final video of a live show in Bucharest.



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