Issue 11: Robotic Music

By Ronni Reich

Little metal squares slide up and down four strings attached to metal planks, one strumming a constant beat, others pinging out an ostinato. No musician is visible as GuitarBot begins its solo jam session.

Like the player pianos and musical automata that came before it, GuitarBot is part of a long line of mechanized instruments that have existed for hundreds of years and today largely fall under the heading of musical robots.

What musical robots do, how and why are questions with infinite answers. What's certain, though, is that they're coming up in the world, becoming more popular, more user-friendly, more diverse, and expanding the realm of sonic possibilities.

GuitarBot is a creation of Eric Singer and LEMUR, the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, the ensemble he founded in Brooklyn in 2000, one of several prominent groups in a similar vein.

"I've been always been combining music and electronics," Singer says.

Robots, he says, are a disruption much like the piano or other instrument was in its inception: "Here's another way of making music."

Instead of having instruments feed into a computer as electronic music often does, Singer says, he wanted to try working the other way around, so that the output came from the instruments rather than speakers.

Besides GuitarBot, LEMUR has created the fairly self-explanatory Xylobot and, most notably, the Orchestrion, which toured with Pat Matheny. It's a giant machine with levers and motors that strike vast streams of keys, strings, drums, and cymbals. Other instruments have been more whimsical, like the Slime-o-tron, which makes sounds when squished.

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