Five years ago, musician and engineer Eric Singer founded LEMUR, the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots. Since then, he’s developed more and more complex creatures, and his “orchestra” will make its Juilliard debut this week in a recital of music by senior J. Brendan Adamson. Alicia Zuckerman spoke with Singer.
This is Juilliard’s first-ever all-robot concert?
Saying “all-robot” is a little bit tongue-in-cheek. All of the instruments being used are automated, although humans are intimately involved in creating the music. There will be no human performers onstage.
Have you ruffled any feathers with the musicians’ union?
There’s this classic idea—Are robots gonna replace humans? Far from it, in this case. We’ve involved many different composers and many different performers, all of which are human. [Laughs] We haven’t been approached by any unions yet saying, “For every robot you have onstage, there have to be three humans employed.”
What will the stage look like?
Many people don’t think the instruments look like robots at all, because there’s a preconceived notion based on sci-fi movies of what a robot is supposed to look like. What the audience will see are a number of interesting-looking instruments that will move around and play themselves. There will be Guitarbot, which is a four-stringed robotic slide-guitar-like instrument. And there will be the Modbots, which are modular percussion instruments, which together form a percussion ensemble. They play on command from computer, from a score, or from commands created on the fly in real time.
And what will the concert sound like?
People say, “What does robotic music sound like? ” Well, it’s like saying, “What does piano music sound like?
” It depends on the composition entirely.
Why did you start making robots?
It’s a way of creating a new kind of music. I see myself as a modern practitioner of musical-instrument-building, something that’s been practiced by artisans for thousands of years. I’ve always loved the sound of the electric guitar, but I was never any good at it, so I was able to create an instrument that can play much better than I can.
Have the robots ever taken over?
I like the idea that they become sentient and start playing their own music. That hasn’t happened to us yet. Usually, if something goes wrong, they stop working.
So what could be next?
After robots? Probably brain-to-computer interfaces that allow you to just think of music and have it come out.