Music Interviews
4:59 pm
Sun April 6, 2014

The Coming Robot Army Just Wants To Rock

Originally published on Sun April 6, 2014 6:50 pm

British electronic musician Tom Jenkinson, better known as Squarepusher, was approached by a group of Japanese roboticists last year with a pitch he calls "the ultimate 12-year-old-boy fantasy." The team explained that they had constructed a band of mechanical musicians with superhuman abilities: a dreadlocked bot with 78 fingers that could play two guitars at once, an octopus-like drummer with 22 arms, a laser-shooting keyboard player. They were called the Z-Machines. All they needed were songs.

Jenkinson wrote a piece for the band called "Sad Robot Goes Funny." When that turned out well, he and the roboticists decided to make a whole EP together. In approaching the project, Jenkinson says, one question never left his mind.

"Can this music be emotionally commanding?" he says. "Of course, everyone's gonna have different answers. But even if one person says yes, that tells me something. The world of music performance is seen as sovereign human territory, and if a robot can encroach on it and generate a performance that people find compelling, I think that is a historical event."

Jenkinson spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about making the new EP out this Tuesday, Music For Robots, and the value of music that challenges the nature of performance. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read more below.

As an electronic artist, you've been using machines to make music for a long time. How is this different than what you've done before?

On the face of it, you've got this selection of instruments which are all very familiar. You know, the moment you hear a note struck on an electric guitar, there are so many references which come to mind. But when you hear a note struck on the electric guitar by a robot, for me it takes that very familiar sound and puts it in a different musical space. And that, for me, is very exciting.

You're kind of doing something for the first time. A robot's guitar riff is something nobody's ever really heard before.

But on the other hand, you've got this familiar palette. I guess a lot of people will hear the record and go, "Oh yeah — that's a guitar." Maybe it's not so radical. But it puts me in a mind to think: Is this in a twilight zone between music made in the digital realm, purely with computers, and music generated by human hand? For me, it's a fascinating world that's somewhere in between the two.

Did you take the robots into the studio?

It was a collaboration with a roboticist. I didn't actually go to Japan at all. The whole thing was done via the Internet; I was sending him bits of data, and then he would send me back recordings so I could work out how particular things sounded. But part of the point of these recordings is that I've done nothing to alter the performances of these machines.What I've tried to do on this record is represent, as honestly as possible, what a robot gig would be like — simply a little compression here and there, and a bit of reverb, just to give it space. But it's pretty much as you'd hear it if you went to see them play.

There's this pretty complicated guitar solo in the song "Dissolver," and it's kind of weird knowing that it's a machine doing it and not a person; I just felt like something was missing. Am I being lame and old-fashioned?

(Laughing) No — I mean, people want to hear human beings in music. I quite like the idea that this music is bringing those questions to the table. You might listen to it and go, "Wow, that's an amazing guitar solo." If someone tells you it's a robot, do you change your opinion? Then that tells you something about the way you think about music — that it's actually not just the notes, but it's the context.

As a musician, what is it like to see a robot with 78 fingers play the guitar? Is it intimidating at all?

Not really. I mean, it's like a runner comparing himself to racing cars; it's a quite different thing. A record I made in 1997, Hard Normal Daddy, for example: All the drums are programmed, and yet drummers respond do it. That music that was programmed can have an effect on people, if anything, is inspiring. You think, "OK, I can adapt some of those ideas for what I do."

I have to ask: Is this a novelty, something that's interesting for you right now? Or do you think there's a legitimate future for music like this?

In the early days of electronic music, people were asking exactly the same question: Is this novelty? [People said,] "This is just some kind of cheesy experiment, but we don't have to really take any notice of it, because it's not going to go anywhere." In the particular case of robots, I'd say it's budgetary constraints, as much as anything, which prevent these things from happening.

For me, nothing is novelty in music. There's so much to be learned in the smallest kinds of musical endeavors. This is kind of like a music box with attitude, if you like — but I think it's a wonderful thing.

So you've done electronic music. You've worked with robots. What's next?

The thing is, I've got this fascination with using machines, but equally fascinating to me is playing music myself: I play guitar, bass, drums. I'm inspired by seeing what these robots do; I want to go back and have another look at my bass playing. Seeing these things deal with musical information, I want to see what I can do with it myself.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

You're listening to a song performed by robots. It's one of five songs off a new EP by British electronic musician Tom Jenkinson, also known as Squarepusher. He worked with a group of Japanese scientists to create music performed exclusively by robots.

TOM JENKINSON: It's like the ultimate 12-year-old boy fantasy to make music for a robot band.

MCEVERS: There's a dreadlocked robot with 78 fingers that can play two guitars at a time. There's a kind of octopus drummer bot with 22 arms and a laser-shooting keyboard machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: For this EP called "Music for Robots," Jenkinson had some pretty big questions.

JENKINSON: Can this music be emotionally commanding? Can it bring about a response which is beyond a simple cerebral intellectual response? Can it move us? Of course, everyone's going to have different answers. But even if one person says yes, that tells me something just because the world of music performance is seen as sovereign human territory. And if a robot can encroach on it and generate a performance that people find compelling, I think that is an event. That is a music historical event.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Right, because you've used machines and electronics to make music before. I mean, how is this different than what you've done before?

JENKINSON: On the face of it, you've got this selection of instruments with which we're all very familiar. You know, the moment you hear a note struck on an electric guitar, there are so many references which spring to mind. But when you hear a note struck on the electric guitar by a robot, for me, it takes that very familiar sound and puts it in a different musical space. And that, for me, is very exciting.

MCEVERS: Right. You're kind of doing something for the first time. So a robot's guitar riff is something nobody's ever really heard before.

JENKINSON: On the other hand, let's say you've got this familiar palette. So I guess a lot of people will hear the record and go, oh yeah, it's a guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JENKINSON: Maybe it's not so radical. But then it puts me in a mind to think, well, is this in a twilight zone in between music made in the digital realm, music made purely with computers, and music generated by human hand? For me, it's a fascinating world that's somewhere in between the two.

MCEVERS: This band of robots is called Z-Machines. Did you take them into the studio?

JENKINSON: It was a collaboration with the roboticist. I didn't actually go to Japan at all. The whole thing was done via the Internet. So I was sending him bits of data, and then he would send me back recordings so I could work out how particular things sounded. But the part - the point of these recordings is that I've done nothing to alter the performances of these machines. So what I tried to do on this record is represent, as honestly as possible, what a robot gig would be like, simply a little bit of compression here and there, and a bit of reverb, just to give it a bit of space. But it's pretty much as you'd hear it if you went to see them play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Yeah, the guitarist has 78 fingers, so it obviously can play really well. There's this pretty complicated guitar solo in the song called "Dissolver."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISSOLVER")

MCEVERS: It was kind of weird listening to it knowing that it was a machine doing it not a person. I just felt like something was missing. Am I being lame and old fashioned?

(LAUGHTER)

JENKINSON: No. I mean, it's - you know, people want to hear human beings in music. I quite like the idea that this music is bringing those questions to the table, you know? Because you might listen to it and go, wow, that's an amazing guitar solo. And then if someone tells you it's a robot, then do you change your opinion? Then that tells you something about the way you think about music, that it's actually not just the notes, but it's the context.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: My guest is Tom Jenkinson, also known as Squarepusher. He's releasing an EP collaborating with a robot band from Japan. It's called "Music For Robots," and it's out on Tuesday. I wanted to ask you, as a musician, what was it like to see a robot with 78 fingers play the guitar? I mean, was it intimidating at all?

JENKINSON: No, not really. I mean, it's like a runner comparing himself to racing cars. It's a quite different thing. A record I made in 1997, "Hard Normal Daddy," all the drums, for example, are programmed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JENKINSON: And yet drummers respond do it. That music that was programmed can have an effect on people. And if anything, it's an inspiring thing. You think, well, OK, I can try and adapt some of those ideas for what I do.

MCEVERS: I have to ask, I mean, is this a novelty? Is this something interesting for you right now, or do you think there's a legitimate future for music like this?

JENKINSON: You see, in the early days of electronic music, people were asking exactly the same question, is this novelty? This is just some kind of cheesy experiment, but we don't have to really take any notice of it, because it's not going to go anywhere. In the particular case of robots, I'd say it's budgetary constraints, as much as anything, which prevent these things from happening.

For me, nothing is novelty in music. There's so much to be learned in the smallest kinds of musical endeavors, you know? And, OK, this is kind of like a music box with attitude, if you like, but I think it's a wonderful thing.

MCEVERS: You've done electronic music. Now you've worked with the Z-Machines. Curious, what's next?

JENKINSON: Don't know. I mean, the thing is, you know, I've got this fascination with using machines, but equally fascinating to me is playing music myself. I play guitar, bass, drums. I'm inspired by seeing what these robots do. I want to go back and have another look at my bass playing. Seeing these things deal with musical information, I want to see what I can do with it myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Tom Jenkinson, also known as Squarepusher. His new EP, "Music For Robots," is out Tuesday. And if you want to see this robot band, go to our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. Check out our podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. Arun Rath is back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.