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Composing for Mechanical Instruments

Oh, I’ve been bitten by this mechanical music bug big time.

I’m now working on composing some new music for an orchestrion. This will be no mere weekend-long project (as most of mine tend to be), and hopefully I can share some audio snippets with you as work progresses.

I imagine most of you don’t know what an orchestrion is. It’s a kind of automatic or mechanical music instrument that combines features found in other mechanical instruments to make a whole “orchestra”: piano, organ ranks and percussion. In the early 1920s, orchestrions were a relatively common component of dance halls and amusement arcades, but they, and most other automatic instruments were largely displaced by the economics of radio and higher quality recordings, which could deliver a greater variety of music much more inexpensively.

Most people associate the sound of orchestrions with carnivals, perhaps because antique carousel rides sometimes use them (or band organs, which are similar) to provide the music. They also tend to evoke “old timey” associations, because the type of music typically played on them often dates from the early 20th century. Here’s a sample:

I Want to be Happy, performed by SOFI, arranged by Craig Brougher

However, I have a strong (and quite possibly insane) belief that these associations are too narrow, and that the musical potential of these instruments is much wider. I believe they are capable of making less anachronistic sounds that can be more deeply felt by the listener. This is the counterpart to my belief that music composed by (or with the aid of) machines is capable of greater emotional affect in the listener than the dreck produced by Microsoft Songsmith or Band-in-a-Box.

As a long time practitioner of mechanical composing – that is, using machines as an aid to composition, I think the most appropriate performer for an automatic composition is an automatic instrument. To date, I’ve used computers a lot, but computers don’t have huge ranks of organ pipes and triangles.

There’s no denying that pretty much every Orchestrion recording I’ve heard is a little silly, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Seriousness, like utility, is overrated (see previous post on this subject).

The Orchestrion I’m composing for, SOFI, is the inspired creation of Craig Brougher, a mechanical instrument specialist who built her in Kansas City. SOFI can produce piano, organ, xylophone and various percussion sounds.

Amusingly, Craig and I have musical tastes that are from very different corners of the universe, but we both agree that Orchestrions are capable of far more than carnival novelties. I’ll be preparing MIDI scores here in Los Angeles, which Craig will test and record in Kansas City.

I’m planning a piece for SOFI that will contain (significantly more elaborate) versions of the visual-process-music techniques I developed for my Whitney Music Box and Wheel Music.

This music probably won’t be as pleasant to listen to as I would like it to be. This is one of the reasons I use visual animations with my music. I think the visuals help provide an explanation for what is going on, and help the ear anticipate what is going to come next.

“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.”
W. H. Auden

My paraphrase of that quote is “The eye likes surprise but the ear likes comfort.”

My solution to that problem is to provide visual scores with my more complex music. I started this practice in college with a long tape loop piece called “Wound Room,” although at the time I didn’t have the means to synchronize the score display with the music. I don’t know if the technique works, but it certainly seems to have garnered my Whitney pieces more appreciative listeners than if I had simply released the audio tracks and explained them in words. People like a good show.

Combining visual process music with an orchestrion should make a fun, noisy, and anachronistic show! Sadly, Orchestrions are not exactly what you would call “portable,” but I’ll climb (or haul) that mountain when I get to it…

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