Looking for the future? Here’s a clue: this weekend, Vancouver’s first steel-framed skyscraper, the Dominion Building, will host a meeting between several cutting-edge artists and a small gang of freethinking musebots. Play Nice: Music by Humans & Intelligent Machines posits the idea that software can spark as well as serve the artistic process, by making the bots full members of a shifting array of duos, trios, and bands.
For composer and musebot designer Arne Eigenfeldt, it’s an exciting step forward from the work that he’s been doing for the past couple of years. After removing the human element from performance, he’s looking forward to adding it back in.
“I’ve been going around the world, literally, putting on installations where I have musebot ensembles,” he tells the Straight from his Langley home. “About a dozen people have made musebots for them—there are about 100 different musebots in all—and I put them together into these ensembles. They play for five to 10 minutes, and then I put in new musebots or they automatically generate a new ensemble.
“So these artificial agents have been communicating with each other. Can we also have them communicating with humans?”
Musebots, it should be explained, are not what we conventionally think of as robots. There will be no titanium arms banging on drums here. Instead, Eigenfeldt explains, musebots are algorithmic creations programmed to generate music, either internally or in response to outside input. He likes to compare his work to what electronic producers do with their digital audio workstations, except that instead of assembling tracks, he’s assembling bands. One bot plays bass, one plays drums, and so on—and these individual entities can talk to each other.
“You can put together an ensemble where someone’s made a drum bot, and somebody else has made a bass bot and a synth bot—and then you can swap out the drums and put a different ‘drummer’ in there,” he says. “So the Musebot is simply a little algorithmic piece of software that plays with other musebots. And they don’t try to model human beings, because that’s really, really hard to do.…Instead, they’re doing things that are easy for computers, but that are very difficult for humans to do. They can tell each other exactly what they’re doing, for instance, but they can also say what they’re going to do in the future, so that allows them to maybe coordinate their ideas.”
Eigenfeldt compares their reasoning process to the near-telepathic way that improvising musicians shift dynamics on the fly, and for Play Nice he and the interdisciplinary artists in Sawdust Collector have assembled an intriguing and improv-friendly cast of collaborators. Joining Eigenfeldt in providing the bots will be Matthew Horrigan, Paul Paroczai, and Yves Candau. On the live side, we’ll see and hear cellist Peggy Lee; guitarists Adrian Verdejo, Matthew Ariaratnam, and Nathan Marsh; video artist David Storen; and poet Barbara Adler. Each piece will feature a different cast and a different method of interaction—but Play Nice, Eigenfeldt stresses, is just as much of a sensuous experience as a science project.
“This is a concert, and it’s really important for the audience to just hear the music and be interested in what’s happening musically,” he says. “They may be aware that something complicated is happening on-stage, but that’s not the focus.”
Sawdust Collector presents Play Nice: Music by Humans & Intelligent Machines at the Gold Saucer Studio on Friday (July 28).