Not your grandma's player piano
The story of one man's mission to create robots that double as musical instruments.
Wed, Mar 31, 2010 at 09:48 AM
MUSIC MAN: Eric Singer and his LEMUR robots have reinvented musical instruments. (Photo: Evan Cairo)
Eric Singer doesn't see the world the same way others do. He's looking around at everyday objects (plastic tubing, toy fish, vent caps) to see how he could create musical instruments. Singer, founder of the LEMUR project (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots), has wanted to be a musician — or maybe an engineer — since he was a small child making guitars out of boxes and rubber bands. Several degrees in both fields later and you can find him in his basement, surrounded by machinery and iron filings, working with artists, sculptors, musicians and fellow engineers to create robotic instruments such as the world has never seen.
A lifelong obsession with the guitar drove Singer's initial experiments in robotics. He and his colleagues taught themselves to use industrial metalworking machinery to craft the instruments from pipes and buckets — anything that replicated the sound of a traditional instrument in a way that worked with the computer software MIDI, allowing the instruments to read programmed composition data. Having everything except the knowledge of a roboticist on his team, singer and his LEMUR pals set out to create guitarbot (among other instruments). The team realized that the precision movements involved in operating the machinery were similar to the movements a musician makes practicing the same piece again and again and again. In order to make sophisticated robotic instruments, they just needed to practice.
More than 100 workers were in and out of the makeshift studio in the years since LEMUR began in 2000. Eventually, they succeeded in building fascinating instruments, took their show on the road, and started getting robotic instrument commissions from all over the place. In a world where people expect planned obsolesence, where people expect their machines to fail, they are pleasantly surprised at the reliability and longevity of LEMUR robots, who perform their requested tasks repeatedly without needing adjustments or replacement.
LEMUR robots have appeared in museum installations, art shows, on stage with the band They Might Be Giants, and now they are touring the world with renowned jazz great Pat Metheny, promoting the album Orchestrion. In concert, Metheny sits alone on stage surrounded by more than 40 percussion robots, the lone human musician in a sea of mechanical music-making. While it may seem strange to use machines for a jazz performance (after all, isn't jazz by its very nature improvisational and sometimes unpredictable?), Singer thinks the Orchestrion project is the perfect venue for his work: unlike the drumming mice at Chuck E Cheese, his robotic instruments can play any note, any song, any speed. Even better? They can respond to a live musician's fluctuations in tempo, intensity. In other words, these 'bots can improvise.
The LEMUR creations are designed to dynamically respond to human operators. This makes for interesting art whether the controllers are kids at a museum, sliding oozey goo through a wooden box to make sounds, or 17-time Grammy winners controlling glass jugs through an acoustic guitar. The message is that both science and music are for everyone.
Singer likes the idea that the LEMUR robots appear in diverse places. The organization sets out to bridge connections between people, whether that means getting disparate departments of universities to coooperate or getting artists and scientists to work together. The LEMUR studio has a reputation as a hip place to intern, whether you're a sculptor, engineer, musician or budding roboticist. All students who come there work on all aspects of creating the musical instruments and LEMUR works to foster community and dialog between artists, scientists and audience members eager to learn more about both.