The line between technology and art today is probably as close as it has ever been: photographers rely on digital imagery and manipulation; movies are often largely, sometimes entirely, built using CGI; musicians don’t just record their work digitally but publish, promote and sell over the internet, often using sounds that are entirely digitally created… Where does art stop and technology begin?
Troy, with his Robot Rickshaw, blurs those lines even further. When he first told us that he makes robotic instruments, my first thought was of C3PO and R2D2 in an epic version of guitar hero…
But as amusing as that might have been, what Troy has invented is something that is pushing both robotics and music in a new direction.
His Robot Rickshaw is a collection of instruments that play themselves, and Troy is both engineer and composer for this electronic orchestra.
A one-stringed guitar, a collection of percussion, a clarinet and two “voices”, the band are all hooked up to the brain – Troy’s laptop – where he can adjust the sound, choose the compositions, and all manner of functions which I don’t pretend to understand!
Building his own software to control the instruments, Troy’s laptop screen was a maze of matrices and code that would impress any programmer.
But Troy insists that he is a musician first, and not a scientist.
Taking his robotic orchestra around the country, Troy draws plenty of attention to his act as he pushes his rickshaw around wearing a HazMat suit. Ironically, he wears it so that it will draw attention away from him, and onto the music. “Otherwise, it just becomes a science demonstration,” he says. He wants people to not think so much about how it works, but just to enjoy the music.
I have to say, even though I didn’t find the music hugely enjoyable, witnessing Troy’s orchestra was one of the mot fascinating and engaging performances I have ever seen. Troy travels the country like us, giving concerts, demonstrations and interviews as part of his PhD.
As we swapped stories from the road over a 2am Ramen Noodle Supper, Troy shared about his time in Belgium with his mentor Godfried-Willem Raes who has pioneered music and robotics, and really does have an entire robotic orchestra collection.
One of the best stories was when Pat Metheny came to visit Troy and his colleagues in Belgium to see the instruments they were working on. He ordered several, and was going to be working on building something new with Troy, but in the end it fizzled out. Troy hopes to build him a robotic guitar one day and just send it to him!
In Troy’s highly complex robotic system, what amazes me is that all of the instruments are actually analogue – the sound produced is not digital. The guitar is really plucked, the clarinet is blown, the cymbal is hit. And the speed at which the robots are able to perform is exceedingly fast… Troy works the sound into a frenzy of speed, proving that the robots are probably able to play much more intricate patterns than any human would…
But, we are not yet at the point in the technology race where the robots are able to create like humans. For now, though we are not sure for how much longer, only the human race still retains that beautiful ability: to feel music, to interpret it, to have music connect our hearts, souls, memories and emotions.