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The Coming Robot Army Just Wants To Rock

Z-Machines, a "power trio" designed by Japanese roboticists, on stage in Tokyo last year. The songs on <em>Music for Robots</em>, a new EP by the U.K. artist Squarepusher, is performed entirely by the group.
Toru Yamanaka
AFP/Getty Images
Z-Machines, a "power trio" designed by Japanese roboticists, on stage in Tokyo last year. The songs on Music for Robots, a new EP by the U.K. artist Squarepusher, is performed entirely by the group.

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.

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