The project entailed several major challenges, not the least of which was that these exquisite instruments in no way need the addition of a live orchestra. How could I possibly do justice to their beauty? Also, because of their fragility and the large size of many of them which might be appropriate for a concert hall setting, their availability for use on the stage was limited (two of the cylinder musical boxes appear).
As fortune would have it, just before receiving the request for this piece I had found on the internet a free newly rendered version of the French Dadaist painter Fernand Léger's and cinematographer Dudley Murphy's 1924 film, which had initially been intended to be created using as a soundtrack George Antheil's masterpiece Ballet Mechanique for six player pianos and percussion. The music turned out to be twice as long as the film. With the exception of a reported performance of the score on a single player piano in 1935, it was never accompanied by Antheil's music until 2002. However that may be, seeing Léger's surrealistic visual evocation of Ballet Mechanique combined with my initial concept of the piece as a dream journey through time and the restrictions of live use, leading to the idea to have the Colonial Symphony accompany a video of the instruments together with excerpts from the Léger film.
I began then with shaping the video footage into a montage of images and sounds that might convey the dream journey. My hope was to create a mysteriously unique experience of the instruments that wasn't just a documentary but something that might expand interest and curiosity without doing any disservice to the beauty of the instruments. The addition of Ballet Mechanique provided some darker tones to the mostly light-hearted music that the wondrously crafted instruments produce. I wondered from the outset about the obsessive energy revealed by the carvers and builders of these instruments, together with their attempt to humanize mechanistic music production. I was struck by the sheer amount of labor and cleverness resulting in what is for the most part light entertainment heard in hotel lobbies or private salons.
Orchestrophonia begins with an automaton “The Flautist” being wound up as if to start up the whole piece. (This device is used at two other points in the piece). The orchestra comes in with reference to the musical material being played by the Limonaire Frères Orchestrophone (hence the title) Fair Organ. The orchestra is out of synch with the Orchestrophone as if struggling to find a way to travel into the past to the time when it was built. The instrument's majestic conclusion to its rendition of “The Railroad Rag” snaps the orchestra into its time. From this point until the end the orchestra interacts with the music of the mechanical instruments with close synchronization.
Throughout I have employed layering and cross-fading techniques. Two or more instruments often play at the same time. The audio track has been rendered into 5.1 Surround Sound to immerse listeners in the sound and occasionally to move sounds around in this space. My ideal would have been to have all these instruments present surrounding the audience playing simultaneously!
The overall organization of Orchestrophonia is roughly into seven contiguous sections correlated with specific instruments. I. Orchestrophone, II. Cylinder Music Box , III. Phonolizst-Violina, IV. Automata Montage (unaccompanied), V. Cylinder Music Box Duet/Encore Banjo, VI. Roller Organ (unaccompanied)/Orchestrophone reprise, VII. Regina Corona/Symphonion.
This seven-part structure is further shaped to have particular emotional high points which may however be experienced differently by different listeners. The “meaning” of the dream journey for me is revealed at the very end when the Symphonion “Eroica” Hall Clock opens up to expose the slowly rotating disks which are producing its music, moving to the image of the clock at the top, and then to the final image from Ballet Mechanique , a young woman enthralled by the aroma of a flower. Breathe deeply. Enjoy. Beneath this facade of seriousness, have fun. Dream, time, music; the inner working of things: our great mysteries.
If you haven't been to the Morris Museum to see/hear the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of mechanical musical instruments and automata, you're missing a great treat. I encourage you to get there as soon as you can.
Special thanks to Sandrian Camera & Imaging for video footage of the automata and to LiveTelevision.com for the excerpts from Ballet Mechanique . And of course gratitude to all the folks at the Morris Museum who helped make this possible: Steve Miller, Director; Erin Dougherty, Vice President for Programs; Ellen Snyder-Grenier, Curator of the Guinness Collection; Jeremie Ryder, Conservator, Guinness Collection. Last but far from least my heartfelt thanks to the Colonial Symphony and Paul Hostetter, who is the motivating force behind the entire project.