Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Clockwork Musicians

Last week I wondered why a musician would choose to devote the time and effort it takes to learn a traditional single-voice, single-sound instrument like a woodwind or horn when modern polyphonic instruments like keyboards or guitars can drive synthesizers that produce any sound imaginable, including the sounds of traditional instruments. (And Angie wondered what would happen to the music community at large if musicians stopped acquiring the discipline traditional instruments require.)

To round out this discussion, it’s worth noting that for decades in Japan researchers have completely sidestepped the whole synthesizer issue by developing anthropomorphic robots that physically play the same instruments a human being would play.

As far back as 1984 [!] a robot called Wabot-2 could sit at a keyboard, read music [!] and play the music. In “Loving The Machine,” Hornyak writes: “To show the world how well Japanese had accepted machines and robots into their lives, a slightly modified version of this electric pianist named Wasubot, with a repertoire of sixteen pieces, read and performed J. S. Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’ with the NHK Symphony Orchestra at Expo ’85 in Tsukuba, northeast of Tokyo. Emperor Akihito, then crown prince, was in the audience along with thousands of others. … Wasubot was a humanoid, and when he played it was not a recording, but a provocative performance. Some listeners saw an enormously complex and expensive machine usurping a most emotive human activity, and felt a chill. Others saw a robot—a mechanical mirror of themselves—and heard music that moved them to tears.

More recently, Japanese researchers have developed a robot that can play the flute. You can actually watch its mechanical lungs working as it plays. There is a sound and video clip of the robot playing on the web. It’s amazing.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of this stuff. It’s vastly more popular in Japan than it is in America. I tend to see it from two idiosyncratic views.

Frank Zappa was often asked to compose and/or arrange and/or conduct orchestral music for established orchestras all around the world. With the possible exception of Pierre Boulez, I don’t remember Zappa having many kind words for classical musicians. I don’t know what the situation is nowadays, but in the 80s and 90s musicians were unionized and Zappa felt seniority counted for more than general musicianship. (Zappa, used to working with the finest studio musicians and performing musicians in rock and pop, according to legend often resorted to exhorting the classical musicians with things like, ‘Hey, if you guys can’t sight-read it I’ll fly in some of my rock musicians who’ll read it and play it so you can hear what it’s supposed to sound like.’) I think composers would probably enjoy having an orchestra of mechanical players who could be counted on to get things right. Composers might also want to work with real, human musicians, but I bet either openly or secretly composers would like having robots available just to hear things played the way the composer heard it in his or her head.

Robot musicians touch a very personal nerve for me, because when I was eleven years old, I really loved the scenes in “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” and “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” when his clockwork musicians played and he danced with his beautiful assistant Vulnavia. If I ever become a supervillain and construct a fantastic, hidden lair for myself and my beautiful assistant, I would like to have a band of clockwork musicians to play cool, slow versions of jazz standards while I plotted and executed my world domination (and danced with my beautiful assisant).

It’s quarter to three,
There’s no one in the place except you and me
So, set ’em up, Joe
I got a little story I think you should know

We’re drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
So, make it one for my baby
And one for the road . . .

1 comment:

Angeline said...

Yay for the Japanese again. The robot pianist and flutists are pretty neat. You could tell that the harp music wasn't real, and the "flutist" had some air support/embouchure issues with the air escaping.

If they could put "skin" and features on the robots(which is possible) and give them grace and passion while they play, THEN the world might be fooled.