Line Out Music & the City at Night

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Squarepusher Jams With Robots—Prog Fusion Ensues

Posted by on Thu, Feb 13, 2014 at 9:53 AM

Highly evolved British electronic-music producer/bassist extraordinaire Squarepusher's latest project is a collaboration with Japanese robots known as Z-Machines (the Zima alcohol company is involved in this somehow; who knew it still existed?). Squarepusher (Tom Jenkinson) wrote a track titled "Sad Robots Go Funny" for an automated 78-fingered guitarist and a 22-armed drummer. The result sounds like an elegantly fiery prog-fusion summit meeting between Larry Coryell and Jack DeJohnette—something ECM Records might've released in 1979. I mean, it's cool, but it doesn't sound like THE FUTURE, which is what I was expecting/demanding.

Squarepusher elaborates on the project:

“In this project the main question I’ve tried to answer is ‘can these robots play music that is emotionally engaging?’
I have long admired the player piano works of Conlon Nancarrow and Gyorgy Ligeti. Part of the appeal of that music has to do with hearing a familiar instrument being 'played' in an unfamiliar fashion. For me there has always been something fascinating about the encounter of the unfamiliar with the familiar. I have long been an advocate of taking fresh approaches to existing instrumentation as much as I am an advocate of trying to develop new instruments, and being able to rethink the way in which, for example, an electric guitar can be used is very exciting.

“Each of the robotic devices involved in the performance of this music has its own specification which permits certain possibilities and excludes others - the robot guitar player for example can play much faster than a human ever could, but there is no amplitude control. In the same way that you do when you write music for a human performer, these attributes have to be borne in mind - and a particular range of musical possibilities corresponds to those attributes. Consequently, in this project familiar instruments are used in ways which till now have been impossible.”

For more enlightenment, read the press release after the jump.

In the Summer of 2013, a team of young Japanese roboticists was assembled with the challenge of creating a music-performing system that was beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced musicians. The three robots that comprise Z-Machines were the result. The roboticist’s musical producer, Kenjiro Matsuo, and his team, invited a number of Japanese composers to develop music specifically for the project. An invitation was also extended to Squarepusher, who was intrigued by the idea to say the least.

The opportunity to explore the compositional possibilities of a guitarist with 78 fingers and a drummer with 22 arms was a temptation impossible to ignore. The resulting “Sad Robots Go Funny” was a poignant and highly praised piece, composed and produced by Squarepusher and performed by Z-Machines. The video produced by award winning director, Daito Manabe, can be seen here.

The rapport that developed between Squarepusher and the team led to a lingering feeling that the project still had unexplored potential. Squarepusher approached Matsuo-san with a view to further investigating the possibilities of the collaboration. This led to additional pieces being created, involving an intense four weeks of composing, then two more months of transferring and adapting data, various technical hurdles and the eventual recording of Music For Robots.


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