SCOTT SIMON, host:

Composers have long dreamed about realizing their complex ideas without having to rely on pesky musicians who might not be able to play very well or simply might not like their music. For their part, musicians have long sought ways to create bigger sounds by themselves. Think of street corner one-man bands.

Now guitarist and composer Pat Metheny has joined both ranks with his Orchestrion Project. Ashley Kahn reports.

(Soundbite of music)

ASHLEY KAHN: This is Pat Metheny playing his guitar while his computer triggers a full range of acoustic instruments at the same time - no overdubs.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAT METHENY (Musician): Everything you're hearing is me. Every little bit of it, from the compositions to the way the ride cymbal is played, is filtered through my sense of things. It's absolutely the most personal thing I've ever done.

KAHN: It is Pat Metheny's 21st century version of an orchestrion, an instrument that dates back to the turn of the last century. He pulls out a book.

Mr. METHENY: This'll blow your mind, actually.

(Soundbite of pages turning)

Mr. METHENY: Pretty much what's going on there, right? You know, I think that's like 1890.

KAHN: It actually looks very different from Metheny's version. It's all packed into one big cabinet, but many of the parts are there.

Jeremie Ryder, a conservator at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, cranks up the Popper's Rex, an orchestrion built in Leipzig, Germany in 1913.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JEREMIE RYDER (Conservator, Morris Museum): There is a full piano inside it. It doesn't have a keyboard so you can't hand play it. There's also just under 100 organ pipes of different varieties to create different flavors and textures of sound. There's a set of orchestra bells that's similar to a glockenspiel inside of it, as well as a bass drum, snare drum, crash cymbal and triangle.

KAHN: In a small former church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Metheny's updated orchestrion does away with the cabinet. The instruments are spread across the large room.

Mr. METHENY: It's not synthesizers. It's not samples. It's actual, physical, living, breathing, getting-hit-around stuff, a whole ensemble of stuff that I can then write for and improvise with. Like here you can hear the regular guitar.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. METHENY: But I'm playing a marimba with it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. METHENY: Okay, let me...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. METHENY: Like right there, that's a clanger.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. METHENY: (Unintelligible) cymbal.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. METHENY: That's a wood block.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Some instruments Metheny triggers into action with his guitar, but many sequences are preprogrammed.

Mr. METHENY: So let me get a section of something where I can play with everything together.

KAHN: Seeing the orchestrion in action is like watching Santa's workshop - if Santa was a jazz cat. There are two pianos, two robotic guitars, a vibraphone, drums, bells, even a mechanism that blows air across the top of liquid-filled jugs. They're all linked by wires to an Apple hard drive.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: It took Metheny four years to create his orchestrion. He had the help of experts in the fields of robotics and solenoids, electromagnetic triggers that can move a drumstick or shake a tambourine.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. METHENY: I mean, you can't help but sort of laugh when you see it all going.

KAHN: Metheny's Orchestrion Project is both an album - just released - and a concert tour of Europe and the U.S.

Mr. METHENY: This is easily the most expensive undertaking I've ever attempted, and I'll be really happy to break even on this one. We're into the six figures. You know, we can say that.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: How it will be received by critics remains to be seen. The jazz world is not known for being especially warm to technological innovation.

Mr. METHENY: I've always felt a big part of my job is to irritate those people. When I'm not doing that, I feel like I'm not doing my job.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Exploring musical styles and technologies is nothing new to Metheny. In the 1980s he caused more than a little controversy playing jazz on a guitar synthesizer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. METHENY: I often joke - my first musical act was to plug in.

KAHN: The jazz world has mostly come to terms with electronic instruments and digital technology. If there's anything about Metheny's orchestrion that might raise eyebrows, it's the lack of human interaction.

Mr. METHENY: Because I'm a jazz guy there's going to be these questions like interactivity and blah, blah, blah. The thing is, with this I've created a world for myself where I can interact with a dozen different things a dozen different ways.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Most listeners probably won't know they're hearing automated instruments on Metheny's new album, but in concert they'll know.

Mr. METHENY: I expect it to be a character-building experience when things don't work, which is going to happen. I mean, we're talking about hundreds of moving parts here.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. METHENY: Some nights that one isn't going to do what it's supposed to do, I know it. And you know, when that happens - solo guitar, baby. You know?

KAHN: And with that, you can't lose.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Kahn.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You can hear songs from Pat Metheny's new album and highlights from his career at NPRMusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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