Metal Music Machines


The cover story on last week’ Pittsburgh City Paper was an interview and profile on artist/roboticist Eric Singer, a Carnegie Mellon alum and recent Brooklyn -> Pittsburgh transplant responsible for the founding of LEMUR (the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots). His creations employ robotic actuation of acoustic elements, functioning under pre-composed sequences, in a sort of “robotic orchestra”. He’s collaborated with fusion guitarist Pat Metheny and library-rockers They Might Be Giants.

Singer is just one of the artists working in what can now be considered a tradition of “musical robotics”, exploring the limits of electronic automation within musical systems.

Singer’s approach is an outsourcing of musical performance to non-human players, allowing a human counterpart the opportunity to improvise or elaborate upon these themes, as a soloist. A similar approach is utilized by Pierre Bastien, a French musician who builds and performs alongside simple mechanical sound-sculptures.

In contrast to LEMUR’s high-tech, engineered creations, Bastien’s devices are romantically simple. Consisting often of erector-set like mechanisms put into motion by old turntables, his machines have the distinctive style of a tinkerer’s workshop. Wobbly, maybe even dusty, but charming in an “island of misfit toys” kind of way.

Operating on the complete opposite side of the robotic performance spectrum is Survival Research Laboratories, beloved outlaw forefathers of robotic performance, and the “industrial aesthetic”. Founded by Mark Pauline in 1978, and still active today, the group crafts politically-charged performances on a larger-than life scale, where huge, threatening machinations destroy themselves on backdrops of crumbling industry.

Although the emphasis is on the physical performance, the group has released several albums and compilation tracks, made up mostly of field recordings of the metal carnage. Whereas LEMUR’s robots perform the jobs of human musicians with machine accuracy, SRL focuses on the anti-human aspects of robotic performance, allowing the machines to speak and act “for themselves”, in a brutal language of their own.

Tom Grimley, an LA musician and electronics experimenter, is a firm believer in machines speaking their own languages. An ex-member of 90’s geek-rock darlings the Rentals, Grimley has spent the past few years touring with his “automated electronic music ensemble”.

Grimley’s mysterious boxes are assembled and interconnected in real time, as part of the performance. The human element is merely as “benevolent caretaker”, giving life to the machines, and allowing them to squeak and squawk amongst themselves. Though not technically robotic, (but definitely cybernetic) the self-regulating circuitry of the performers determines their vocabulary and cadence, while human interaction is intentionally restricted. This is truly a music by machines, for machines.

The variety of aesthetic approaches to machine-performance that have emerged in the 30-odd years since its inception is impressive. From the novel precision of mechanical musicians to the obtuse language of self-serving circuitry, it will always be captivating.


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