Meeting The Rise Of The Modern Mechanical Orchestra

Art & Culture

Recent years have seen a spate of artists searching for meaning in the process of automating music. The concept of the mechanised orchestra has been fascinating minds since cogs have first turned, from 13th Century Arabic scholar Al-Jazari’s floating orchestra– it’s miniature four piece band powered by a rotating drum to provide lakeside music at parties- to the beautifully complex orchestra beloved by Vincent Price’s mad inventor in The Abominable Dr Phibes. However, the advent of cheap computer technology has introduced a new, uncanny precision to the process of automation. A new generation, part artists, part designers and part scientists, have grappled with the myriad of creative possibilities this new found control offers. Meeting, running at Lift Festival from June 28th to July 2nd, is one such example. The dancers Antony Hamilton and Alisdair Macindoe stand, surrounded by a circle of tiny robotic percussion instruments. As the miniature boxes begin to batter out their beat, the duo dance, bodies obeying the strict tempo dictated by a computers rigid algorithm, biological beings performing as particularly complex clockwork soldiers.  

Some comparison can be made to a number of other works. The young artist Felix Thorn has won international acclaim with his intricate wooden contraptions, known simply as Felix’s Machines. These machines, labyrinth networks of hammers, pulleys, pistons, beaters, cymbals, drums , tin cans, xylophones, lights, bells and whistles, play music box melodies that veer between the delicate and the demented. In Thorn’s work, the computer that powers these tinkling, ethereal constructions is hidden away, an invisible hand creating something quite mysterious. Unlike Meeting, which offers an interplay between man and machine, the machines exist outside humanity, self-contained automatons suggestive of a future where machines have outlived man, their strange melodic song a reminder of former masters, and a mischievous hint that they may have, somewhere along the line, gained an alien sentience.

In contrast, the work of Pedro Reyes, while showing an orchestra playing without humans, is never anything other than a sobering reminder of humanities dark nature. Reyes’ work – most recently seen in his Disarm show in Margate’s Turner gallery- transforms decommissioned weapons into automated instruments. The result is a clanking orchestra comprised of rifle barrels, shell cases and ammo clips, plucked, beaten and twanged with military precision. The weapons have been acquired by Reyes from the drug cartels of his Mexican home, and the project is his attempt to birth creativity from violence and negativity. Musically, Disarm offers a very different sound to Felix’s Machines – a deeper, more guttural noise, gruff and blunt in its composition, a world from Thorn’s twinkling visions of a mechanoid future. The machine controlled action of the orchestra is a reminder of acquiescence- the equipment has no will of its own; it merely exists to fulfil to the desires of its owner. It transpires that gun metal can be used just as well for making music as it can be for taking lives. Reyes art reminds us that it is humans, not machines, who are responsible for the ills of the world.     

The intrusion of violence into modern life can also be felt – albeit more subtly – in the part-art-part-science creations of University of Pennsylvania. In 2012, the college’s robotics department set themselves a challenge – creating an orchestra played solely by drones. After much trial and error they created a schematic that enabled a squad of drones to play the James Bond theme tune (of course). Following complex three dimensional flight paths, the drones beat drums, hit keys and run sticks along exposed piano wire, creating a slightly off beat, but easily recognisable rendition of John Barry’s iconic score.  The results are both cute and chilling, the drones seeming such affable little objects, a busy team of workers collaborating to deliver a much loved melody. That the melody they play is the theme tune of Imperialism’s most famous defender, played by machinery currently most likely to be deployed in the destruction of people in the Third World, is an irony that we can assume was not lost on the engineers.

But as with Felix’s Machines, Meeting offers something different to both Disarm and the Pennsylvania experiments. By placing human dancers alongside robotic percussion, Meeting asks a multitude of questions about our current existence in a digital world, about the interplay between humanity and the robotic, and the capacity for man to create machine that can then, in turn, create beauty. When Hamilton and Macindoe’s motions are a direct response to a mechanised beat of their own creation, we have to ask, who is in control? And as workers around the world are gradually – and not so gradually- replaced with machines of mankind’s own making, as thinkers from Stephen Hawkings to Elon Musk voice concerns about the rising power of artificial intelligence, this seems a particularly pertinent question to ask. 

Meeting opens tonight – more info and tickets over on the Lift website –

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