New Zealand’s ingenuity seems limitless these days. Back in 2012 a graduate student at Victoria University, in my own city of Wellington, invented a robot bass guitar. Awesome or what? Here’s the instrument – MechBass – playing ‘Hysteria’:
Soon, the same machine is going to perform as part of an ensemble: http://www.qtheatre.co.nz/plot-twist-bass-guitarist-robot
That’s extremely geeky and extremely amazing. It also shows how good Kiwis are at doing cool stuff, and boy do I wish more of us would do more of it. And this incredible robot begs a question. Will a machine ever really replace a human musician?
For me that comes down to creativity. Can robots improvise music on the fly? Can they spark off each other’s talents creatively while playing? I suspect not – yet. Doubtless an algorithm could be written – and some software already does just that for MIDI-implemented systems. I’ve used some of it myself. But it’s limited by the framework of the algorithm. Humans still add something machines cannot, however incredible the machine might be.
Here’s Tal Wilkenfeld – an Australian bass player who’s been taking the US by storm for the past decade, working with Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock, Toto, Vinnie Colaiuta, Zappa Plays Zappa, and others. Video is 1:01 long:
The other main example of humans vs robot musicians is the drum machine. Remember them? They were going to make human drummmers obsolete back in the eighties. And the Linn drum machine certainly helped define the sound of Brit synth-pop – think Echo and the Bunnymen (‘Echo’ was the drum machine) or the Sisters of Mercy – whose drum machine was known as ‘Doktor Avalanche’.
The idea might have worked long-term if the role of a drummer was merely to bang out some kind of mechanical auto-rhythm over which ‘real’ music was then played .
Of course that’s never been the case. Drums are a musical instrument, just like any other, and need to be properly written for and played. Here’s Terry Bozzio proving the point. Click and listen to the first thirty seconds or so…
And that’s why drum machines have gone the same way as digital watches and all the other ‘ways of the future’ that the eighties brought us. Yah. Also the digitally-recorded ‘loops’ of the early 2000s.
When it comes to flexible creativity, humans win. For now, anyway.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016