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Musical Robots Take The Stage For Harmony, Not Domination

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Musical Robots Take The Stage For Harmony, Not Domination

Musical Robots Take The Stage For Harmony, Not Domination

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/216482747/222527487" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Robots may not be taking over the planet yet, but they sure are busy in more and more places: hospitals, offices, movie sets, even battlefields. Now, as NPR's Priska Neely reports, they're also making music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PRISKA NEELY, BYLINE: Compressorhead is billed as the world's heaviest metal band: three hulking, metallic machines. In January, the robot band got to play their biggest stage yet at Big Day Out, an Australian music festival. Thousands of fans rocked out in the blazing sun to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Killers and the robot band they'd never heard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEELY: When it comes to their looks, there are a few upgrades to the basic human frame. The mohawked robodrummer has four arms. It covers the whole 14-piece drum set at once and fires beats off mechanically like a typewriter. The robot guitarist has 78 hydraulic fingers. Wires stream out from the arms to trigger notes along the entire fretboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEELY: With all the extra extremities, they can play with more speed and agility than people ever dreamed of. And they're not the only robot band out there.

TROY ROGERS: I believe that robots have the capability to be similarly transformative to the guitar or the synthesizer.

NEELY: Troy Rogers is a composer and instrument designer studying at the University of Virginia. He programs and tinkers with robots out of a small storage unit in Charlottesville. When I show up there, he's busy grinding a homemade blend of coffee called robot roast using a hand crank.

ROGERS: Hand-cranked, pedal-powered coffee for the creation of musical robots.

NEELY: Seems like you should build a robot to do this for you.

ROGERS: Maybe eventually.

NEELY: For now, Rogers and two colleagues are focused on musical robots.

ROGERS: Flip the switch and turn them on.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

ROGERS: And that's CARI telling us everything is all right.

NEELY: CARI looks a bit like a clarinet. Aside from all of the wires and flashing lights, there's a robotic drum...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

NEELY: ...and a guitar robot with only one string and two speakers that look a bit like eyes. With the click of a mouse, you've got a band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEELY: These robots don't always play the songs the same way. They were designed to improvise. This project started a few years back. Rogers was working in Belgium with another set of robots, the world's largest robot orchestra at the Logos Foundation. Two human musicians, a saxophonist and a bassoonist, wanted to jam with the robot orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEELY: Rogers programmed a section of the orchestra to listen to the patterns of the human performers in terms of pitch, rhythm and tambour.

ROGERS: It was this sort of free improvisation. I didn't know what they were going to play. They didn't know what the robots were going to do.

NEELY: The music may sound a little chaotic to you and me. But the robots were freestyling, tracking intervals and responding with appropriate notes. Rogers says, for him, the first session was magical.

ROGERS: We were all just sitting there with our, you know, jaws dropped after the fact. And we said, we got to do this again.

NEELY: Rogers and his team got to work designing a trio of musical robots for the human musicians. Since then, that human band has done three tours with the robotic accompaniment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROGERS: The more people who get their hands on these instruments and do interesting things, that's how instruments evolve.

NEELY: Instruments evolving. Here is where the fear of a robot takeover inevitably sets in. Robots can scan endless pages of music and can be programmed with the rules of a genre. If they can play faster and even tour, will there come a time when human musicians are replaced altogether? Well, the humans who are building these robots don't think we are in jeopardy. The goal is collaboration.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEELY: Bjork commissioned a massive robotic harp for her latest tour. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny recorded an album with dozens of robotic instruments. He says working with the robots got him to places he's never been.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEELY: Priska Neely, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: This is NPR News.

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