MIDI Machine Music: An Interview With Musical Roboticist Eric Singer
The next time you need a self-playing xylophone or a large robotic orchestra, Eric Singer is your man. As one of the world's leading creators of musical robots and orchestrions, robotic music machines, he's the go-to guy for musicians, performers and arts venues seeking hassle-free drummers and complete robotic backup bands.
Singer's robots operate strikers, shakers or other mechanisms. Many, like the endlessly-riffing GuitarBot and the robotic Indonesian Gamelatron he helped to create in 2008, are robotized traditional instruments that are MIDI-controlled and mechanically played.
"The GuitarBot is a complicated instrument," says Singer from within a Rube Goldberg maze of spare parts and machinery at Brooklyn's Madagascar Institute, where he first started tinkering with musical robots in 2000. "It's a robotic, slide electric guitar-like instrument. It doesn't really look like a guitar and it doesn't really look like a robot, but it plays some really cool music."
When he isn't souping-up existing instruments, Singer is creating new ones like the Slink-o-tron, Slime-o-tron and Sonic Banana. "They are completely agnostic to what kind of music they play," says Singer, a nontraditionalist who has spent a lot of time producing instruments that simply make interesting sounds.
While they can carry a tune, Singer's bots have no control over what they play. "You don't ever wake up and find that the instruments have composed anything themselves," he says. "It always takes some sort of human musician or composer for the music to occur."
In the case of SingerBots, the Pittsburgh-based studio out of which he works, Singer is that human musician – a saxophone player who studied electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, electronic music at Berklee College of Music and computer science at New York University before launching the League of Electronic Music and Urban Robots (LEMUR) out of the Madagascar Institute.
"In 2000, I started asking friends and colleagues if they were interested in creating robotic musical instruments and a lot of creative people said yes." The group started prototyping mechanisms and building controllers that could be plugged into a computer using a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation gave them the juice to start turning out robotic musical instruments, such as the Gamelatron.
"A gamelan is a collection of percussion instruments from Indonesia," says Singer. "It's usually played by about 10 instrumentalists. We created a robotic gamelan that could be used to compose music that would normally be played by an orchestra of human musicians. It had an element of DJ culture to it, which incorporated music containing loops, and enabled music to be played live. It contained about 120 different instruments in it."
Singer's robots are computer controlled and designed so that any musician who can compose on a computer can plug-in and play them. Along with a basic control box design, Singer has developed standard striking mechanisms for drums and cymbals that enable him to churn out musical robot replicants and large ensembles with the help of a team of machinists, assemblers, solderers and electrical engineers.
"Over the years I've gotten into creating these large collections of robotic instruments called orchestrions," says Singer. "The term orchestrion goes back to the 1800s when people were creating mechanical musical instruments so I've really adopted that term but moved it into the future to robotics."
In 2006, Singer developed an orchestrion to perform a Dadaist piece called Ballet Mechanique at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Subsequently, he designed a stage-sized 150-mechanism ensemble to perform as the backing band for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny during his 2010 world tour. Most recently, he was commissioned to create a robotic cabaret band for the Lido cabaret in Paris consisting of four xylophones, dozens of drums and cymbals, exotic percussion and his signature GuitarBot.
"There are people all around the world doing this now," says Singer. "Because of the maker movement it's a lot easier to create these sorts of things. It's a lot easier to work with microprocessors that are required for the controllers. It's a lot easier to get the kinds of parts that you need and more people are creating their ideas of what robotic instruments should be."
Currently, Singer is scouting locations for his dream project: the largest collection of robotic instruments to ever perform in one place.
"I'm thinking about a cathedral-sized collection," says Singer. "An interactive installation that would allow people to walk into the room and (the ensemble) would sense their location or they would interact by means of hand movements. It will probably be a computer algorithmic composition. I would open it up to the world and let any composer ... create music for the instruments."
The arrangement seems designed to level the playing field between robotic instruments and their human players and raises questions about the future of music and whether robots will ever take the place of human musicians.
"I never say robotic instruments play better or worse than humans," says Singer. "I say they play differently."