Back in November 2013, I saw Compressorhead (the robot band) perform live in Union Square. Although robots will always be super cool, I was disappointed that someone would build a 78-fingered guitarist to perform “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The music performed by robot bands should either be impossible or extremely difficult for humans to execute. Otherwise, what’s the point of building the machines?
It turns out that Compressorhead is not the only robot band on the block. A new band called Z Machines built by roboticists from the University of Tokyo has just released a new album with music composed by Squarepusher. Music for Robots is a five-track album that at first I was excited about. When I heard that Squarepusher was brought on as the composer, I thought his experience with electronic music would be an excellent background for taking advantage of this new group. That excitement faded quickly once I heard the music. What I heard was Squarepusher basically making the same music he always made. Nick Neyland, in a recent review for pitchfork.com, captured not only the essence of the album, but of my own disappointment when he described Music for Robots as “a daring vision of the future that turns into a humdrum training session at the office.”
The failure of both Compressorhead and Z Machines to create something sonically interesting reveals the robotic band as a novelty. They are repackaged animatronics. If sonic exploration is the goal, then it is waste of time and energy. Composers have been using computers for decades now to create music beyond the ability for humans to perform. Why do we create elaborate humanoid bodies to act as mediums for this music? If the goal to reproduce the live experience, rather than reproduce the sounds that human players make, then clearly there is some value to be had. Perhaps, years from now, robotic technology will reach a point where the robots can move around the stage like a person does while simultaneously performing extremely fast and complicated music. As it stands now, one of the few values I see in these robot bands is the step they represent toward that eventual goal.
While my experience with both of these bands may seem dim and disappointing, the time I’ve spent listening and watching and following these groups has reinforced how important the live experience is. If all we cared about was the sound, then live performance would have slowly died away as recording technology improved. So there is something important enough about seeing a live performance that not only allows them to flourish, but also to inspire humans to dedicate time, energy, and treasure to the creation of machines capable of performing live.
The live performance is a powerful one, and despite advancements in technology, it remains unassailable. In fact, humans continually find ways to incorporate technology into the live experience in new and imaginative ways. So it would seem the greatest value the robots bring is to remind us how important live music truly is.
Music for Robots is available from Warp Records on CD and 12″ vinyl, for download, or can be streamed on Spotify. Zima Machines has produced a video about the making of this album as well.