musical robots

AE interviews Eric Singer
May 25, 2007

Thursday through Saturday, May 31 - June 2, at 3-Legged Dog, the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR) presents 3 evenings of concerts featuring works for computer-controlled musical robots composed by Morton Subotnick, George Lewis, R. Luke Dubois, J. G. Thirlwell, J. Brendan Adamson, and John Linnell and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. The concerts are part of the New York Electronic Arts Festival, a month-long series of concerts, panels, and workshops presented by Harvestworks. We caught up with the founder of LEMUR, Eric Singer, and asked him a few questions.

AE   What's the idea behind the festival?

ES   Personally, my goal is to raise the profile of electronic art and technology-based performance in New York. The festival is showcasing many well-known New York City composers, performers and other artists working in the electronic realm, as well as bringing in some incredible talent from around the world.

The idea for this festival came about because of the coincidence of two events in which I'm involved: the 2007 New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) conference and LEMUR's first annual commissioning concert series. NIME is a gathering of inventors, composers and performers creating or working with new electronic musical instruments. This is the first year it is being hosted in NYC, and LEMUR is a sponsor.

LEMUR's commissioning concert series was planned to occur around the same time as NIME. We're presenting an incredible roster of composers who have created new works for LEMUR's robotic musical instruments, accompanied in most cases by the composers themselves, as well as other live performers. With these two events occurring so close together, I suggested to others that we put an umbrella over the concerts, conference and other events and make it into a festival celebrating electronic music, art, performance and new media...thus, the New York Electronic Art Festival was born.

AE  Why do you think robots are so popular these days? What's the charm?

ES  Modern society has always been interested in the latest and greatest in high technology. From an inside view, robotic technology has become cheaper, easier to use and more available over the last ten years or so. This has enabled more artists and technologists to employ robotics in their work. And since we insiders are always looking to employ the latest and greatest high technology, robotics are showing up in more and more work, which in turn brings robotics to the public eye. Personally, I find inorganic things that move inherently fascinating, so that's the charm for me.

A singing-bowl LEMUR robot

AE What kinds of robots are there in the world?

ES A broad question indeed. I think one can find examples of robotics being used in almost every industry and facet of life now. With the popularity of Battlebots and Robot Wars a few years ago, we unfortunately saw a lot of robots used to destroy. Now, with the popularity of events like Artbots, and the emergence of robotics in university electronic arts programs, there is a renaissance of making robots that create.

AE What are your goals in making robots?

ES My goals in creating robotic musical instruments are to invent new forms of musical expression. The robots play differently (and thus sound different) than humans and synthesizers. They push composers in new directions. Also, when it comes to electronic music, musical robots are a lot more interesting to look at than LEDs on synthesizers or the back of a laptop. And, they enable us to present interactive music with live acoustic instrumental sound and visuals, so they work equally well in installations and live concerts.

Also, for me, there is a high "wow" factor to watching a physical instrument play by itself. Sometimes I look at the GuitarBot playing and can't believe it's actually doing what it's doing.

AE How have the human performers on the concert reacted to playing with robots?

ES It's funny - Jim Thirlwell is using a string quartet in his LEMUR piece. When the players saw the robots play for the first time, there was a mixture of awe, fascination and not quite knowing what to make of them. An hour later though, it seemed that they were referring to the bots simply as other members of the ensemble. I thought that was a striking transition.

© 2007