Squarepusher’s robot bandmates play live, plus Gruff Rhys and Michael Jackson
As session musicians go, Z-Machines are in a class of their own. Forget that they’re not impaired by egos or “musical differences”, this robotic trio consists of a 78-fingered guitarist, a keyboardist that shoots lasers and a drummer with 22 arms.
But while they possess the stage presence of RoboCop armed with an axe, they still need a good tune – which is where Tom Jenkinson, aka electro master Squarepusher, comes in. Approached by Z-Machines’ head roboticist Kenjiro Matsuo to create a piece for live shows, Jenkinson found the process so enjoyable he persuaded Matsuo to let him record a whole EP, Music For Robots. T3 explores the mechs behind the music… T3: Is composing for robots a challenge? Squarepusher: “I needed to establish what the specifications of the robots were. So, with the Z-Machine that plays two guitars at the same time, I had to establish the total range of notes, how fast it could play them and how many it could play simultaneously. They’re the same sort of considerations you’d have approaching any combination of instruments and performers – what can they do?” T3: Did you find yourself pushing the limits, testing what Z-Machines are capable of? SP: “Of course, you’ve got to concede to the 12-year-old boy inside you at some point and say, ‘Okay, let’s see how fast this can go, because why the hell not?’ But for me it’s about trying to explore some of the tech’s less obvious assets. For example, being able to play chords over massive distances.
“The guitar robot [March] could play six separate melodies at the same time; no human could do that. So there are abilities that, to some degree, shape the compositions. Part of what attracts people to this project is the novelty, they’re music boxes with attitude, but I don’t think I’d be happy if these tracks were just ways of demoing the robots.” T3: Do people’s perception of the EP change when they learn it’s played by robots? SP: “This is one of the things that makes the project so interesting, because it demonstrates how much context affects people’s response to music. In a way, I’m envious of people who are able to listen to this album, not knowing anything about it.
“What people hear initially is supreme musical athleticism, but for some people, once you tell them it’s played by robots, that somehow disqualifies the whole thing. Instead of a guitar player, you have engineers which are working equally hard applying different skills. I don’t see why a piece of music should lose merit because it’s not being played by humans. It’s anachronistic.
“Music is often described in terms of human behaviour and attributes; you’ll hear a track as being played with ‘sensitivity’, or another as being ‘aggressive’. All of this terminology is based on human behaviour. If you remove any trace of humanity from the music, does that mean the appreciation drops away? I hope not. I hope people will look past the robots and actually listen to the tracks.” Music For Robots from $9.99 on download, CD or vinyl,
the z-mac hines’ guitarist ca n play chor ds no huma nwould ever attempt