Legendary artist Pat Metheny has gone to robotics for his next album, and you can finally see a first glimpse at what the results look like. The Orchestrion is a project by the musical robotic specialists LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots).

That’s all I’ll say for now, but I definitely will be working to cover this story in more detail.

After more than a year of work and collaboration, I am extremely excited to tell you about the Orchestrion Project. In 2007, 17-time Grammy-winning jazz artist Pat Metheny came to LEMUR with the idea to produce an album and tour backed entirely by robotic musical instruments. This led to a year-long project where we produced an orchestra of nearly 40 robotic instruments, including GuitarBots, mallet instruments and a large array of percussion. These instruments, augmented with several instruments by other roboticists, comprise the Orchestrion, a robotic orchestra entirely under Pat’s compositional and improvisational control.

Pat spent the better part of 2008 composing for and recording with these instruments. The result is a new album entitled Orchestrion, scheduled for release on January 26, 2010. I’ve had the pleasure to preview the album and see Pat perform in studio with the Orchestrion. I and others who have heard and seen the Orchestrion Project believe it is some of the best music Pat has ever produced.

From February to May 2010, Pat will be touring the world with the Orchestrion. I am eagerly looking forward to the tour and the exposure it will bring to our art form and the great music produced by Pat Metheny with these instruments. When Orchestrion comes to your city, it is a performance not to be missed.

I would like to personally thank all of the LEMUR artists and apprentices who worked on this project. I especially want to thank Leif Krinkle and Boris Klompus – without their hard work and dedication, the extraordinary results we achieved would not have been possible.

This project, along with other projects, performances and installations we’re working on in New York and Pittsburgh, should make 2010 a banner year for LEMUR. I hope we’ll have the opportunity to share our work with you.

We’ll have the album on January 26, and the tour in February.

Thanks to Brian Cass of the Overclock Orchestra.

  • oh pat metheny, you can make anything sounds smooooth

  • oh yeah, a little less jangly than the originals.

  • Only Pat Matheny can make robots seem lame.

  • TechLo

    Geez, I like Pat Metheny. His "Still Life Talking" is a fantastic album.

  • reid

    Pat needs to check out Reason from propellerheads…

  • whoooo, sounds great!

  • hey! that sounds just like humans playing generic jazz stylings… where's the robot jazz, Pat? Robots can and should be used to do things that go beyond our human abilities 🙂

  • Stij

    Oh hey, I've heard about this before, but this is the first video I've seen of it in action. It looks pretty cool, but the question is, why? Why build an entire elaborate electronic orchestra to play…smooth jazz? Plus, this thing sounds like it would be a NIGHTMARE to tour with.

  • Jaime Munarriz

    He could have asked Kraftwek for their old bots, and taught them to play with swing!

    C'mon, think on all the jazz musicians that have to feed their families… unless he's got them hidden, like The Turk chess player!

  • nylarch

    Novation will put one out for a lot cheaper.

  • Jim Aikin

    I'm with reid and nylarch on this one. It's vaguely possible that there's some kind of "organic sound" vibe that you get from physical objects, even when they're being played by gears and pulleys, but why not just use a MIDI sequencer, Pat?

  • Zach G

    vizzie hit the nail on the head. Why use robots just to play something a human could? The point of synthesized music is to surpass the boundary of what acoustic instruments can do, so why not do the same with synthesized performers?

  • Todd Fletcher

    What disappointing comments… people, Metheny was sequencing with a Synclavier in the early 80s. He knows a thing or two about it. If you bothered to read a bit you'd find that part of the point was to use computer sequencing with fully acoustic instruments. To quote Pat: "The energy of sounds mixing acoustically in the air is something that cannot be compared with anything else."

    Most puzzling to me is Jim Aiken's comment, maybe I'm not understanding him. "It’s vaguely possible that there’s some kind of “organic sound” vibe that you get from physical objects…". Vaguely possible? Really? I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

  • Todd Fletcher

    More from Pat:

    "Parallel to the information revolution that has affected all of our lives, we have lived through a revolution in music technology that is almost overwhelming. Yet, at the same time, as much as I have been enthusiastic about the orchestrational potentials of synths and electric instruments in general, and even as those instruments have improved enormously and continue to develop, the whole idea of jamming a whole bunch of combined sounds into a single set of stereo speakers has never been as satisfying to me as a single instrument into a single discrete amplification system (electric guitar) or especially, the power of acoustic instruments and sound."

    This is true, to say the least. Maybe it we all need to unplug more often to remember it.

  • Jeff

    If a monome and Max/MSP were somehow involved in this, everyone here would be raving about it with giant boners and be calling it the next best thing.

  • Jim Aikin

    @Todd — thanks for the quote from Pat. I think he articulates what I was groping toward, which is that having sound coming from a number of discrete sources is simply not the same as having it come from a single pair of stereo speakers. (This is why a Leslie can't be reproduced in stereo.)

    That said, I'm pretty sure robotically played instruments are also going to produce a variety of unintended clanks and whirs — plus the ever-present danger of loss of calibration, the cost of touring, and (not least) the fact that for folks sitting in the audience at any sizable venue, the audio is going to be coming from two or four speakers in any case, not from the physical locations of the instruments!

    If you want to sequence in eight-channel surround, you can easily do so. Imperfect samples can be included in your instruments. I can't help thinking that this whole shebang has as much to do with impressing audiences with a gee-whiz physical display while also making a not-so-subtle satirical statement about computer music as it does with creating an aural experience. Which is pretty much what I was getting at, in my usual too-terse-and-elliptical way.

  • Jim Aikin

    One other point about my "vaguely possible" comment. It's perfectly clear that in the hands of a trained player, an acoustic instrument can do expressive nuances that would be extremely difficult to produce with any sort of electronic apparatus. As a cello player, I'm always aware of this.

    But bear in mind, the acoustic instruments Pat is employing are not in the hands of trained players! They're being played by solenoids or something. Other than the business of sound coming from various physical locations, I very much doubt that these mechanisms will be able to produce anything in the way of a musical experience that couldn't be produced by a good sample library and some DSP.

  • Adam

    Cute but pretty pointless endeavor. If you're going to use real instruments it's a lot funner and sounds much better to have humans play them rather than robots. As others have pointed out the music is also quite bad.

  • Todd Fletcher

    Thanks for clarifying Jim, that all makes sense. I'm sure there is a theatrical angle, Metheny is an entertainer after all.

    The point that these instruments would be less capable of nuance is true, but, they could also play things unplayable by humans – the marimbas are not limited to the mallets a person can hold, and so forth. While samples/computers also have that freedom, I just can't go along with the idea that the result could also be achieved with a good sample library.

    I think Metheney isn't just getting at the sound coming from different places – like you said you can do that with multichannel systems. He's getting at something more subtle – the sound of the air coloring the music. In addition to electronic music, I play bass in a bluegrass band. It never sounds as good as when we're all playing in the same room, no PA, nothing. It's something I would like to get from my electronic instruments, but then you run into a lot of problems, like, how do you record it and play it for others, etc.

    Here's a scenario to underscore what I mean: imagine 2 recordings of the same orchestra. One is done with stereo mics in a concert hall. The other with each musician isolated in a booth, seperately mic'd then mixed after the fact (let's ignore the practical barriers for the sake of argument). No way would the two sound the same, and I don't think any combination of technology and engineering skills could bridge the gap. This is not to say that the second recording wouldn't be good in it's own way, just that the first result is not available any other way. It's that result that I think Metheny wants, if I understand him correctly.

  • Stij

    I think the idea is cool – I just don't think he's really taking advantage of the possibilities it offers. I'll withhold my final judgment until I hear the album, though.

    And I do agree that there's a vibe that comes from live instruments that can't be totally captured with samples. Physical modeling gets closer to the real thing, but it's still a relatively undeveloped technology. And it doesn't look as cool as a robot orchestra. 😀

  • J. Phoenix

    I find it fascinating, in the sense that these devices/instruments are the diametric opposite of a VSTi, and yet are in a way very similar to a VSTi.

    As a midi guitarist, I find it an interesting exercise in composition with guitar as the control instrument for disparate instruments.

    Although I do think there's a sort of Mt. Everest "because its there" aspect to it, I know from experience that composing by playing parts on a guitar as opposed to using a keyboard has a completely different feel in the mechanics. That's worthwhile to me, even if the results seem kinda circular and recursive…

    Instrument > MIDI > Computer > MIDI > servos > mics > mixer > A/D > computer does seem like a lot of extra process, but I don't suppose the results could have been the same without the process either…

    Since I've been watching a bit of Devine & Stocco's field recording work these days, I can't help but wonder whether being able to sequence out rhythms on real-world objects wouldn't be incredibly useful to more abstract composers, especially if it was highly portable. Imagine attaching something to an iron railway and telling it to hammer syncopated 32nd notes with the felt and the rubber hammers…

  • I don't think I've seen nearly enough of the new Pat Metheny work to make any sort of judgment; this is a very short teaser video.

    But as to the more general comments, I can say having seen a lot of Eric Singer's (and LEMUR's) work that their robotic efforts are often very different from what's possible with human players or computers. Eric has executed Ballet Mechanique with robotics in ways that are entirely true to the score and impossible with humans, he's built flame organs, he's built unusual *human* controllers…

    Anyway, this seems out of context, either way. It may well be worth criticism, and I think it's always worth asking the question 'why.' I just want to hear the rest of the album first. And it seems an intriguing idea, whether you ultimately decide it works or not. It should be, at least worth criticizing.

  • Disclaimer: in my role as an employee of Ableton, I've been helping Pat with this project a bit over the past year.

    Wait till you hear it. It's burning. He's managed to get an INCREDIBLE amount of subtlety, nuance and musicality out of what could be "just machines." He's spent a lot of time really making sure that it swings – carefully moving sequenced notes around by hand rather than relying on straight quantization, etc.

  • Jim Aikin

    @Dennis — just a quick question: Is Pat doing anything by way of getting "subtlety, nuance and musicality" that would be not available if the result were being played by a good sample library?

    The technology of robotic performance has been around for a hundred years. What you're seeing here is basically a latter-day nickelodeon. In the 1930s Conlon Nancarrow was writing for two player pianos (which were, I believed, synchronized in some way) in order to produce performances that could not have been executed by two pianists, or even four pianists sitting at two pianos. I've always felt that Nancarrow lived 50 years too soon … he would have loved sequencers!

    But yeah, let's wait and hear the whole album. Of course, we'll have to listen to it through stereo speakers….

  • poopoo

    The whole thing is much more exciting to watch than a good quality sample library.

    The bottles and lights thing at the end is fantastic. I'd love to have that as a home bar come robot instrument.

  • genjutsushi

    I wonder if it can play the 'Cantina Theme' from Star Wars?

  • s ford

    21st century muzak.

    elevator muzak for the techno age…

  • Darrell

    The idiocy of some of these statements is really something. Metheny remains one of the great litmus tests – if someone thinks of him as "smooth jazz" you can 100% sure that person is a total wanker. You can take it to the bank. The guy is one of the greatest living musicians and has changed the face of music 2 or 3 times over an amazing career. And he has done it again here, in a big way. This a game changer, not because of how he "did it", but for the music. There is more happening harmonically in this 15 second clip than the monome lame beatbox gamers on here will ever encounter in a lifetime.

  • Okay, easy, easy – can we maybe defend Metheny without simultaneously bashing other people?

    We've got two things happening here: some is reasonable critical skepticism, which should be welcome, no matter how important the artist. And we have some trolling. The latter aren't enthusiastic about anything – monome players included.

    I know there have been complaints about comment threads on this site. Hey, we've got a lot more activity, so it happens. But if you want to change the tone, then it really does lie in your hands – set a different tone.

  • This looks cool as hell. He's using his robot orchestra to make music that sounds like Pat Metheney, because he is Pat Metheney. If Aphex Twin had a robot orchestra, I imagine it'd sound a lot different.

    In fact … would that make a badassed tour or what … Metheney w/Aphex Twin controlling a robot orchestra with Ableton. Also with the light show guys from Pink Floyd … I'm just sayin' I'd pay a lot to see that … I know I'm not the only one.

    If ever there was an album begging to be released in 5.1 (even blu-ray 7.1), this is it.

    Not everyone "gets" Metheney, in much the same way as everyone doesn't "get" Aphex. Metheney defines and then abandons genres … burning through them like a pack of cigarettes.

    It's hard to pin him down, stylistically … other than that "he plays jazz" … whatever the subgenre beneath jazz though, Metheney has done it and done it (usually) better than anyone since.

    Metheney "did" smooth jazz with his album "We Live Here". Then smooth jazz stations started cropping up in every market. I never heard a single track of his on any of these stations (and I do listen to that genre).

  • Meh



    it's like any other technologically convoluted process. If the end result is naff, swooning over the methods used to generate it is kind of pointless

  • Stij

    "If Aphex Twin had a robot orchestra, I imagine it’d sound a lot different."

    Oh man, I'm not even a big Aphex Twin fan, but I'd LOVE to see what he would do with something like that.

    Also, don't get me wrong, I think Metheney is very talented…and I like some of his more fusion-y work. (as plurgid says, he's covered a very wide range of genres) But laid-back elevator jazz, like the stuff in this clip? Not really my thing. As I mentioned earlier, though, I'll withhold my final judgment until I hear the album/watch the tour.

  • ed

    It's probably worth drawing people's attention to Felix Thorn, a Londoner in his twenties who produced a similar piece (I believe he did it singlehandedly) about 3 years, ago for his degree show:


  • it's all just incredible to see in person. it's a bonus if you like metheny's music, which a lot of people do (count his grammys). but regardless of whether you're into the compositions or not, it's undeniably cool to experience. the fact that air molecules are being kicked around with you in the room makes it absolutely different than a sample library.

    – b

  • Metheny's extraordinarily talented, some of his music i've liked, and most i haven't. i don't like the music on the video clip either

    and, yes, mechanical orchestras are (at least) several hundred years old

    but as an artist/composer, i'm sure that the creation of this project was a very cool experience for everyone involved (just creating silent mechanics was a great challenge for the robot makers, judging by the mechanical racket i had to listen to when performing Terry Riley's "In C" in an ensemble with a robot guitar– the mechanics were ridiculously loud, obtrusive, obnoxious, distracting and really detracted from the performance).

    but i adore the sound of a huge factory

    i agree with the points made previously about making robot-specific, robot-exploiting music that humans couldn't perform, but there may very well be some pieces of music on the album that do exactly that. (and i'm not so sure anyone's ever created acoustic instrumental music that couldn't be performed by incredibly gifted performers – the only issue is really speed, and once you go so fast you can't really distinguish individual notes anymore anyway). but K. Penderecki composed a lot of orchestral music using traditional instruments that is far more weird and out there and intensely textural than the vast majority of electronic music (excepting brilliant composers like Subotnick, Varese, Xenakis, Stockhausen who worked in both electronic and acoustic avenues).

    sort of makes me think of Raymond Scott and his transition from super cool jazz composer to electronics innovator, because he became fascinated with the possibilities of generating music electronically. but i don't think his electronic efforts, as much as i enjoy them, ever reached the degree of complexity/texture/timbre as the pieces he could write for a jazz combo

    and hey, seems like this same (slightly tweaked for knob-twisting) robotic setup could be used to play analog synths and samplers (and prepared piano!)

    I don't know, but i'm guessing that what's happening in the video is that Metheny is triggering a lot of what's going on, and much time was spent devising control and voicing schemes to allow the guitar to function as a quite sophisticated and flexible music controller. so- a lot of technical work went into this, and i'm sure that we'd all bust a nut if we had the chance to sit there and play his guitar and trigger that orchestra, and it would be a far more exciting experience than playing a typical guitar-midi-synth through an amp (i would definitely dirty up the guitar sound cuz i've personally never liked the typical jazz electric guitar tone)

    yeah, it's a big sorta ridiculous fun self-indulgent exercise (and collaboration) , but I for one would love to have the talent/time/money to indulge in such a exercise

    I find this site most interesting sometimes because of the "conflict" between purely electronic beatmakers (if there actually are any "pure" electronistas) and those who play both acoustic instruments (and may or may not have much training) and electronics, and also generation gaps: ie, those that grew up prior to the advent of the affordable personal computer.

    we can all probably learn something from each other. that's why i usually drop some names if i make a comment

    i don't think there's a superior form/genre of music.. i probably listen to more sub-saharan folk music than electronic stuff. i play drums, percussion, piano, keys/synths/samplers, guitar, horns and anything else i can get a sound out of. and i've toured doing purely electronic music and purely acoustic improvised music, and "post rock", free jazz, free funk, noise, industrial, blues, electronic, musique concrete, and ethno-folk musics. and i said all of that only to give some context to my occasional commentary

    "sing while ye may"

  • PooPoo the Korruptah


  • wheel

    There is quite a lot of "mechanical" acoustic music out there, ( from nancarrow to pierre bastien etc) … much, if not most, of which is definitely not "smooth jazz" or anything resembling it.

    As far as i'm concerned if Pat Metheny wants to make Pat Metheny music with robots or warthogs that's up to him … i personally might not think it is the most interesting use of the technology, but so what, in that case i'll choose to listen to, or to make, something else …

    people who say " its so sad, all that technology and they make this boom boom tchak noise with it" and those who say "its so sad, all this technology and they make this smooth jazz noise with it" seem equally silly to me.


    "It’s vaguely possible that there’s some kind of “organic sound” vibe that you get from physical objects, even when they’re being played by gears and pulleys, but why not just use a MIDI sequencer, Pat?"

    Well its pretty obvious that he _is_ using a MIDI sequencer, no ? and as for the sound, it's not "vaguely possible" … it's absolutely certain. If you are the Jim Aiikin that i think you are, i'm frankly astounded that with your experience you wouldn't have realised this by now.


    "Robots can and should be used to do things that go beyond our human abilities" …

    "can":? yes "should" ? i think you just invented the fourth law of robotics there. i am still just about capable of using a broom but i just luv my roomba baby …

  • ernesto

    I like it, cus it's like a real life kontakt player. I mean guys, how many times have you been sequencing and wish the sound would be more organic… well, this is one of many possible answers.

  • Stij

    @Wheel: Pretty sure he's triggering at least some of the instruments with his MIDI guitar, not using a sequencer.

  • Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons, and you will find that it is to the soul what the water bath is to the body.

  • wheel


    indeed, surely some …

    but there is MIDI sequencing involved as well, apparently w Ableton Live

    (see D.DeSantis post about 20 posts ago)

  • It does seem it offers more of an organic feel, but I would need to see this one close up. Watch Reviews

  • YETI

    these comments are TL;DR

    Amazing how the human touch is being achieved here in it's own right.

    Too bad smooth jazz isn't the greatest thing out there.

    I look forward to v2.0

  • Disraolli

    "Smooth jazz? WTF? Metheny is the guy that Steve Reich wrote Electric Counterpoint for, besides being the most influential jazz guitarist of the last 30 years, he has worked with Bowie, Joni Mitchell….AND Derek Bailey. Ornette made his last great record with him (Song X for you "boom boom thwackers" out there), he is considered by critics and musicians as one of the greatest improvisers of the past half century and is simply one of the most musical people on the planet. I suggest you wait to hear the record in full, and prepare to get a music lesson. The technical side of this will be a minor element in it all compared to the actuality of the music, as has been the case with Metheny since Bright Size Life (and I am sure no one here even knows what that is). Maybe not Reich, Bailey or Ornette either.

  • Guy

    If anyone needs confirmation that Pat Metheny does not play smooth jazz, just go listen to The Way Up.

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  • After reading some of the comments here, I have become convinced that some folks out there have no bloody clue about listening and music, period.

    As Guy said, any comment that attempts to place "The Way Up" in the category of smooth jazz is so far off base I don't know how long to laugh.

    That's before considering collections of tunes like "Imaginary Day", most of which would not fit into any smooth jazz playlist.

    I have one simple rule when dealing with people who define Pat Metheny as "smooth jazz". It is the same rule that I follow when dealing with people that regard Kenny G as a jazz saxophonist. I ignore them.

  • FYI, there's a new video about the project up on YouTube:

    It looks like he's got some processing set up so live guitar playing can be turned into xylophone playing, etc. Pretty awesome.

  • Ah, controversy! I love it! A few points:

    To the question "why not use synths," I say "why not use robots?" They're two different things. Working with them sounds, looks and feels different.

    Can humans do things they can do? Yes. Can they do things humans can't do? Yes. More importantly though, they do things that are different than humans, and this generally elicits a different kind of music from composers and musicians than one would get using humans or synths.

    I'm sitting here in Savannah, GA listening to composer/performer Taylor Kuffner sound check the LEMUR GamelaTron. I can tell you that it's a much different experience in almost every way than listening a live gamelan or a laptop/synth performance.

    Better? Worse? Up to you to decide. Different people like different music and different ways of making music.

    Could I have used the word "different" more times in this post?

    On my way down here, I listened to The Ramones on my iPod, in case you were wondering.

  • For those who want to see something completely different, check out the GuitarBot videos on http://lemurbots.org.

  • Eric's point about the results of the use of technology is an important one. Some of the most interesting sounds in the modern musical era have come about because inventors tried to emulate a natural musical instrument or musical sound. In terms of matching the original sound source, they failed, but in the process created a new and unique sound. The most obvious example i can think of is the Mellotron, but I am sure that there are lots of others.

    Will "Orchestrion" sound like a room full of humans playing instruments? Nope. Will it sound like a couple of computers pumping out sampled sounds based on an electronic score? Nope? It will be something pretty unique, I believe.

  • esol esek

    amazing equipment, made useful by the musical mind of the musician behind it…it's a relief that is doesnt sound like a softsynth…what's that xylophone thing? That sample is SO OVERUSED….jk

  • Whats with all the cookie cutter kiddies? Is school out already? This looks amazing!!!

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  • Edward

    Pat do it this because he can…If you like or not really don´t matter. The Orchestrion concept is very old (18th century)I thing is interesting to see in the 21th century with the modern technology

  • lorax philowerx

    I saw the guitarbot on the grounds at lincon center several years ago for an experimental music festival along with the long string instrument, a group from northern europe demonstrating and giving tutorials on creating musical instruments out of fresh fruits and vegetables and these extraordinary bowed and struck metal cylinders. Lemurs marriage of an acoustic instrument whether recorded by a trained hand or programmed is a step above and beyond a sample based player. I have great respect for you Jim Aiken and I beg you to seek Eric Singer out. perhaps you could persuade him to take several compositions and compare them played back by the guitarbot and your choice of sample based instrument in an acoustic space. please allow yourself to be open minded as i know you have been so many times in the past.

    Difficult listening through easy, country and western to far eastern, freeform to mathmatical to enviromental all genres have unique gifts for an open ear.

  • mike

    Saw it live in Chicago…..Jaw dropping….like being inside a giant player piano with the worlds best guitar player…long show..like 2.5 hrs. and it rocked!!!

  • GovernorSilver

    @Peter – you said "I definitely will be working to cover this story in more detail."

    Is there still a followup article in the works? I'd like to learn more about how he uses Ableton Live, the footswitches, and the Moog Taurus 3 (as with other technologies employed by Metheny, it was not being used in a blatant manner, and we didn't even notice it until we saw it on the stage when the techs were breaking down the Orchestrion after the show).