Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Robot Orchestra


It's amazing, really, the variety that one can experience in different musical performances. Go to the Cincinnati orchestra and you're watching over fifty people playing instruments. Go see an electronic music artist and you could be watching one guy making music on his laptop computer. Now, if you go to the California Institute for the Arts you will see something somewhere in between- that is a room full of music students at computers and machines making robots play music. Ajay Kapur, a music professor at the school, offers a class in which students learn to build robots and become prat of the Kametic Machine Orchestra. Kupur claims that he's not trying to teach kids to be programmers,, but rather to help them to become better artists in a world increasingly dominated by new technology.

But the performances by the students and their robots are a far cry from the "lone guy at the laptop" performance and these robots are far removed from the player piano. Aluminum boxes, wires, gears, mallets, drums, and skateboard wheels are just some of the components one will see, and these robots aren't just playing what they've been programmed to play. No, in the spirit of John Cage, there's a bit of uncertainty involved. Rather than programmed to simply play music, the students have programmed their robots to improvise. This essentially means that the students are never quite sure how the robots are going to respond. In this respect, Kapur claims that playing with the robot orchestra is a lot like playing with other people. You never quite know what they're going to do next.

And to those who claim that Kapur is teaching his music students to replace themselves with robots? He says that he doesn't think of the robots as replacing human musicians, but rather as instruments that can make sounds that humans can't. For example, one person could play three drums at a time with two sticks, but a robot can have seven arms...