Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

Learning how to program computers hasnt been a requirement for music students. But a professor at one top school thinks it should be. At the California Institute for the Arts, or CalArts, music students are learning how to program and build robots.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: Don't expect to hear everyone play A when the Karmetic Machine Orchestra warms up.

Professor AJAY KAPUR (California Institute for the Arts): So people, log on to the client and just make a simple test that you can talk to the robots.

SYDELL: Professor Ajay Kapur is making sure everyone is signed on to the same server.

Prof. KAPUR: Who's is that set?

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).

Prof. KAPUR: Okay.

SYDELL: Watching the Karmetic Machine Orchestra perform is like looking at the inside of a factory through a sheet of glass.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: It churns. Gears turn. Wired mallets beat drum heads. Workers press buttons on laptops in rhythm.

Student Jim Murphy built what he calls a string-bot with aluminum boxes.

Mr. JIM MURPHY (Student): And at the base of them, there's a motor that spins quickly and plucks the string with guitar picks. And the speed and the direction of the motor can be adjusted.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MURPHY: Kind of amazing to be able to sit there with just one person controlling what sounds like an orchestra of percussive sound. And I feel like I get a very, very close connection with the music when Im doing that.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: There are conventional instruments in the orchestra: a sitar, a bass, a piano. But even they are connected to the matrix of robots. Programming a machine to make music isn't new - thats been around at least as long as player pianos. But these robots improvise.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MURPHY: You feel like you're playing with another human. And instead of simply manipulating a tool, it feels like you are sitting there playing with something that has its own quirks. It has almost its own personality. Each robot has a different feel to it.

SYDELL: The programs that bring spontaneity to these robots were all written by the students. At a time when so much music is created with computers, Professor Ajay Kapur thinks musicians should all know how to program because it gives them more control.

Prof. KAPUR: Only knowing how to use, like, a software package that comes out from a certain company completely limits you to this is the - only the sounds that you can you, and this is the only way that you can really think about this media and this art. Learning to program and build all these things yourself, you can make up whatever you want.

SYDELL: But humans should be making music, not robots, says Jaron Lanier. Lanier is a musician, a composer and a computer scientist who popularized the term virtual reality.

JARON LANIER (Computer Scientist): This particular project, while I really agree with the impulse and I actually like the work, I think it's kind of making a mistake in the sense that making robots play music is kind of missing the point. It's sort of like having a robot have sex for you so you don't have to.

SYDELL: But the robots aren't replacing humans, says musician John Woods-Wahl.

Mr. JOHN WOODS-WAHL (Musician): To me it's more an instrument than a robot. I think of it as an instrument first and a robot second.

SYDELL: And it's an instrument that can make sounds that humans just can't.

Tyler Yamin has been working on a robot to play in a Gamelan, an Indonesian musical ensemble that includes gongs, flutes and metal drums.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TYLER YAMIN (Musician): Normally, one person would play two or three pots at a time with two sticks. But instead of having, like, a robot with two arms, we'd have a robot with seven arms.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: Robots that pluck strings and bang drums are also a lot more interesting to watch than most electronic music, says Professor Kapur. The usual electronic show is some guy or girl standing behind a laptop hooked up to a couple of speakers.

Prof. KAPUR: And Im like, I have no idea whats going on. Why did I come here see this performance? I could probably listen to this on some nice speakers, you know, in a studio.

SYDELL: When the Karmetic Machine Orchestra performs, Kapur says the audience gets a close-up of the moving parts live on giant screens.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: Ultimately, Professor Ajay Kapur says he's not trying to teach his students to be programmers - he's trying to help them become artists.

Prof. KAPUR: We're not MIT and we're not like a technical university. We are a music school. Our job is to make good music that people want to listen to.

SYDELL: Because even if machines are making the music, so far theyve shown no real interest in listening to it.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: