When last we updated you on the fast-approaching Robot Apocalypse, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had fallen under the control of a robot conductor and, sure, it was frightening, but at least we knew we’d still be able to see real violinists and drummers following ASIMO’s baton. But that wasn’t enough for you, robots, WAS IT?
This Saturday, at the 3LD Art & Technology Center, an entirely robotic orchestra will play George Antheil’s score to the Dadaist film Ballet mécanique alongside the film itself for the first time. Antheil — “the bad boy of music, an enfant terrible” of his time, according to fanboy Paul Lehrman (the MIDI expert responsible for programming aforementioned robots) — originally wrote the piece in the twenties for synchronized player pianos (the robots of their time) except the whole synchronization thing wasn't quite possible with the then-available technology. (Which is not to say that Antheil didn’t try — the piece's premiere caused a riot in Paris in 1926.)
The performance Saturday will involve eight pianos, xylophones, a gong, bass drums, electric bells, a siren, and airplane propellers hanging from the ceiling, all played by robots. Which, okay, sounds a little cool, and yeah, maybe Antheil in his weird way would have liked it — but what about the future? “I think the future of music is the fusion between humans and machines,” Lehrman says. “But people want to see other people making music.” Yeah, take that, robots! “A bunch of robots onstage, once the novelty wears off, what’s the use of it? This is hysterically fun. But is it the future of music? No. The person has to be at the center.” We’re momentarily convinced. But it still reminds us a bit too much of that freaky scene in Mulholland Drive when a ghostly conductor shrieks, “No hay banda, no hay orquesta!!!” (“There is no band! There is no orchestra!” It is all an ILLUSION!!) And that did NOT end well. —Rebecca Milzoff