Machine Music: Then & Now

Musicians have a rich history of exploring the possibilities offered by electronic and mechanical instruments.  Though the applications and results vary widely,  a common thread can be identified in them all: the excitement that results from creating sounds which have never been heard before.

The rhythmic control possible in playing and imparting exactitudes in cross rhythms are bewildering to contemplate and the potentialities of the instrument should be multifarious… a strange complexity of rhythmical interweavings and cross currents of a cunning and precision as never before fell on the ears of man and the sound pattern was as uncanny as the motion…” ~ Homer Henly, May 20, 1932 referencing his impressions of the first electronic rhythm machine, the “Rythmicon”

the "Rythmicon" or "Polyrhythmophone" was the first electronic rhythm machine, a keyboard instrument based on the Theremin...


Leon Theremin demonstrates his invention

“Music is the electric soil in which the spirit thinks, lives and invents. All that’s electrical stimulates the mind to flowing surging musical creation. I am electrical by nature.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven


While a complete history of machine based music is well beyond the scope of this article, those conducting modern day audio experiments would doubtlessly be inspired by taking the time to educate themselves on the early pioneers.  In fact, a great way to renew your appreciation for the power and potential of today’s tools is to marvel at how much was accomplished with early incarnations.

Fairlight funk!  “Taking a pure electric signal and sculpting it into something of beauty…”

They blinded me with synthesizers…

Of course, there are many for whom tinkering with sound generating devices is a strictly in-the-box affair.  Those inclined to design their own software tools may well be entering into a Golden Age with the upcoming release of Max for Live, a collaboration between Cycling ’74 and Ableton.

Despite having put machines to use in a seemingly endless array of musical applications, for some the exciting frontier is not that of new machine tools but rather that of new machine collaborators.

Haile is a robotic percussionist that can listen to live players, analyze their music in real-time, and use the product of this analysis to play back in an improvisational manner. It is designed to combine the benefits of computational power and algorithmic music with the richness, visual interactivity, and expression of acoustic playing.  It’s creators believe that “when collaborating with live players, Haile can facilitate a musical experience that is not possible by any other means, inspiring players to interact with it in novel expressive manners, which leads to novel musical outcome.”

Absolut Quartet

Absolut Quartet is a music making machine like no other. The audience becomes part of the performance, while watching something that appears impossible.

“The main idea is that we can envision using machines to enhance the creativity of humans. Right now robots function mostly for industrial automation, but [hopefully] this is just the beginning. We all use tools every day to enhance our creativity – a musician picks up a guitar and is inspired by its sound. Why not use a machine, a robot, to enhance your creativity in other, non-superficial ways? ~ Jeff Lieberman, member of Absolut Quartet

From LEMUR (The League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots), a group of artists whose philosophy is “to build robots that are new types of musical instruments, as opposed to animatronic robots that play existing instruments.”


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