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Release Dates:
April 6, 2010
January 26, 2010

Reviewed by:
Shannon West

Remember the "desert island" list fad. What music would you take with you if you were going to be stuck on a desert island with your music as  your only distraction and entertainment? What I would want most is something that would endure and fascinate through repeated listenings and something that makes you feel so good you can just kind of sink into it.  Desert Island or back yard on a summer afternoon, that is the kind of music that defines moments. Pat Metheny's Orchestrion and Bobby McFerrin's VOCAbuLarieS do that and more because they are so different, so complex, but so comfortable to listen to that you will find yourself coming back to them just to clear your head from the stress and overactivity that are a part of our daily lives. This is music you feel. There is an undercurrent of joy and beauty throughout and since neither of them sound like anything else there are no memories and associations. It's the chance to be engulfed in music and "be here now."

You would think that music that can evoke this kind of emotional connection would be organic, played by a group of people in the studio and stripped down to its essence. Both of these projects are far from that. They were created by using a lot of technology - but what makes them defining moments in 21st Century music is how technology was used to make the music sound more human. There are a lot of recent releases where programming drives the musician. Here are two cases of artists using technology to expand and explore more facets of their own artistry. Ironically, because they both involve a lot of texture and layering of sound they are best experienced on a 20th century device – the CD – rather than as digital downloads because so much of the sonic range is lost in translation.

When Pat Metheny first started posting information on his website about the Orchestrion project there was some concern that the resulting music would sound either robotic or dissonant, the work of a musical Mad Scientist with a big box of toys. The Orchestrion was basically the big brother of the player piano, an early 20th century machine that triggered multiple instruments to give the effect of a band concert. Metheny became fascinated with the concept because his grandfather, a musician, exposed him to player pianos and an actual Orchestrion. He started thinking about the possibilities of a contemporary mechanical orchestra and gathered a team of inventors and technicians to create it. Each instrument be driven by a pneumatic (air driven) or electrical impulse that is triggered by Metheny, usually by his guitar or a foot pedal. The difference between this and a synth is that an instrument is actually played rather than a sound being recreated. That is a superficial look at the process which is explained on Metheny's website: http://patmetheny.com/orchestrioninfo. The final product – the Orchestrion CD - is a thing of pure beauty. It's Metheny playing Metheny with an array of instruments that respond directly to his personal touch. There are a lot of thematic threads that come into this music from other Metheny projects. Snatches of melodies sound like evolutions or improvisations on older material because it is stream of consciousness playing as Metheny explores the possibilities of this instrumentation. What is so surprising is that this music never sounds technological or robotic.  The title track has him playing fast leads over cascades of crystalline sounds provided by mallet instruments – vibraphones and a series of bottles that have been rigged to create different tones. “Entry Point” is gentle, graceful and haunting, “Expansion” manages to be speedy without getting jagged even when it goes through a series of tempo and textural changes. It actually has a lot in common with his earlier, more stripped down recordings, which makes it a perfect entry point for listeners who are beginning to discover his music.

VOCAbuLarieS is the album McFerrin was destined to eventually deliver – the one that translates what he does and how he composes out of the realm of live improvisation and into a recording. It took producer Roger Treece and McFerrin almost seven years to capture the essence of a group of his songs, turn them into structured compositions and record the amount of voices it would take to materialize their vision. Using members of his own Voicestra and an array of singers that cover every genre and nationality, they recorded over 1400 vocal tracks from 50 singers as well as percussion and some sparse instrumentation, then distilled it into a series of songs that are completely original and absolutely mesmerizing. One song has each line sung in a different language, one is a contemporary prayer, another has a heavy dose of African dance rhythms. Dynamics shift, tempos change, melodies that would be disjoint in any other setting are superimposed beautifully.  Influences from the worlds of classical, pop, all flavors of world music, chant, soul and R&B, folk, and everything else intersect and weave through each song. Start with the “single” “Say Ladeo”- you will find yourself swaying to a beat that is totally created by voices. You can do anything to this music from meditate to mow the lawn, it will simply take you away and each song is a one of a kind experience.

We get comfortable with what we know, what we are familiar with, and often what we grew up with. We reach adulthood and default to certain music because it created a feeling at another point in time and you want that feeling back. How did that music affect you that way in the first place? Probably because it sounded like nothing you had heard before and evoked a completely new set of feelings when you played it. One or both of these albums are going to do that for you. Discovering that music is being created right now that can have that effect on you as you are right now is going to be one of the most joyous experiences that music can offer you. Metheny – in his late 50s, and McFerrin – who just turned 60 - are the perfect ones to open these doors.. All you have to do is step into the beautiful unknown and listen.

A clip of Metheny's Orchestrion in action can be viewed here:

Here's an early 20th century Orchestrion complete with Cymbal playing ladies:

McFerrin's video for “Say Ladeo” is as original and innovative as the song itself. If you're having a rough day this one will bring a smile: