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This dude can shred: LEMUR’s GuitarBot

All Your Bass Belong To Us

The League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots puts music in the hands of machines

 

By John Brodeur

 

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

 

“You gotta stop the robots.”

—some homeless guy

 

Growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was, like most kids my age, fascinated by robots. Awestruck, in fact. Robots are our friends, we were led to believe, thanks to just about every aspect of popular culture: Gil Gerard (Buck Rogers) became fast friends with his 25th-century robot sidekick Twiki; C-3PO and R2-D2 were bumbling and lovable, bosom buddies well before Tom Hanks ever donned women’s clothing.

When the Transformers weren’t dune buggies or giant laser rifles or some such crap, they took a form that looked strikingly human—how solipsistic of us to assume that our design is so perfect we should create machines in our own image! Big-screen bots like Number 5 (or, should I say, Johnny 5) from Short Circuit were made out to be oh-so-personable—with feelings, even. Far-fetched, yeah, but effective: I can’t say I wasn’t jealous when that fucker got to make out with Ally Sheedy.

My childhood fascination changed into a kind of awe that was half-fanaticism, half-fear. Robots, we were frequently told, could one day replace humans in the workplace. So, as a child interested in music, I wondered: Could robots someday replace live musicians? Would I grow up into a world where my passion had been rendered obsolete?

Nahh. Clearly, I convinced myself, this idea is bunk. Music, at least most modern forms (jazz, rock, hip-hop), relies on some degree of spontaneity, interaction between players, and between the players and the music itself. Certainly a contemporary pop artist like, say, James Blunt could be swapped out with a shag-coiffed android and nobody would pick up on it, and the world probably wouldn’t lose much sleep if a guitar-shredder like Yngwie Malmsteen were suddenly replaced by a big metal box of nuts and bolts. But robots ain’t got no soul, man. It just can’t happen.

And then the robots came. Musical robots.

Robots Rock!, currently on display at the Schenectady Museum, is presented by the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR), a Brooklyn-based group of engineers and musicians bent on destroying the human race . . . or, more accurately, building robotic instruments. Not robotic musicians, per se, but close enough: The various bots strum, shake, and plunk as any musician would, without the aid of human hands.

“I’ve been an engineer and a musician for a long time,” says Eric Singer of LEMUR. “Up until 2000, I’d created a lot of devices that humans could use to play computer sounds, and I thought it would be interesting to do sort of the reverse—have music come out of the computer and play robots. You can’t play humans, but you can play robots.”

At “Who’s Playing Who,” a demonstration at the museum, New York-based composer-violinist Mari Kimura does both, sort of. She first performs a piece in which certain pitches and volume changes in her playing trigger the 15 or so LEMUR percussive machines—ModBots—stationed around the performance space, thanks to a computer program that recognizes tone and volume.

Then comes the real threat: Kimura performs a duet with GuitarBot, LEMUR’s inaugural invention. A complex machine made up of aluminum, guitar picks affixed to spinners, flat-wound electric-guitar strings, assorted pulleys and belts and mechanisms (it looks like four fluorescent-light fixtures fixed vertically, parallel to one another), GuitarBot is not a bass “as much as a lute or a cello,” Singer says, because it only has four strings.

As Kimura performs, she leans in toward the robot, as if to challenge it. The bot responds, the whole machine shaking as the music increases in intensity and tempo. The metal sliders, used to control the pitch, leap up and down the strings. Gears squeak and groan, becoming part of the music. It’s crude, but accurate—as far as I can tell, GuitarBot never misses a note. Yet the robotic guitar—or “robotic guitar-like instrument,” as Singer calls it—lacks the ability to control dynamics or tuning. Without the aid of a human (or, at least, the computer program that sends it commands), GuitarBot is helpless.

But Singer says his group is working on upgrading the design: “The next model will be able to [tune itself]. It’ll have a tuning program in its software, and every so often it will—[Singer simulates the sound of a guitar being tuned]—strum itself and check its tuning.”

Still, there’s nothing to be scared of, I tell myself. These are machines—they can’t possibly write their own music or anything like that, right?

“In a way they do,” Singer counters. “In installation we have automatic-composition software running, and they’re making up their own music and playing themselves without us there. . . . The software is on a computer that’s running the machines, and it’s generating music through a software program that we wrote.”

Ultimately, the LEMUR robots still cannot reproduce the thrill of a live-music performance, despite all of the possibilities. Like I said, robots ain’t got no soul. And (ha!) they can’t move.

“They’re not getting up and walking around, so having the software in one central place has its advantages,” Singer says. “From our standpoint, I don’t see any reason right now to make them autonomous, because they’re going to appear to do the same thing one way or the other.”

So, good news, musicians of the world. You’re safe . . . for now.

Robots Rock! will be on display at the Schenectady Museum, 15 Nott Terrace Heights, Schenectady, through Sept. 17. For more information, call 382-7890, visit www.schenectadymuseum.org. For more on LEMUR, visit www.lemurbots.org.

 


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