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A 78-Fingered Robot Guitarist Is the Perfect Accompaniment to Squarepusher

This is what we call "future music."
February 13, 2014, 8:00pm
Image: Creative Commons

Last summer, Squarepusher, aka Tom Jenkinson, received a most strange invitation: Would he collaborate with Z-Machines, a robotic band created by a team of young Japanese roboticists? Jenkinson couldn't possibly say no.

Kenjiro Matsuo, Z-Machines' musical producer, made the decision to invite Jenkinson to to create music specifically for the project. Almost all of the other invitations were sent to Japanese composers. And so one of electronic music's most cerebral and talented producers was able to create music with a 78-fingered guitarist and 22-armed drummer. One might say the robots were tailored made for his approach to electronic music.


The collaboration resulted in "Sad Robots Go Funny." (Watch the music video, directed by Daito Manabe, below.) On the track, Jenkinson's musical aesthetic stemwinds around Z-Machines's style of playing. More than just a mere curiosity, Squarepusher vs. Z-Machines calls to mind Plaid's awesome collaboration with Felix's Machines, but with the Japanese robots being able to match Jenkinson's hyperkinetic beats and notes to an almost absurdly technical degree.

More than half a year later, it seems that Jenkinson didn't get his fill. So, he approached Matsuo with the idea of another collaboration. After four weeks of composing, two months of "transferring and adapting data," and various "technical hurdles," Squarepusher and Z-Machines produced the Music for Robots EP.

“In this project the main question I’ve tried to answer is ‘can these robots play music that is emotionally engaging?’," said Jenkinson of the project. "I have long admired the player piano works of Conlon Nancarrow and Gyorgy Ligeti. Part of the appeal of that music has to do with hearing a familiar instrument being 'played' in an unfamiliar fashion."

Jenkinson, who is an advocate of developing new instruments and ways of thinking about music, wanted to rethink the way an electric guitar could be used. "Each of the robotic devices involved in the performance of this music has its own specification which permits certain possibilities and excludes others," said Jenkinson. "The robot guitar player, for example, can play much faster than a human ever could, but there is no amplitude control."

Just like working with humans, Jenkinson had to think about how best to exploit the robots' abilities. "Consequently, in this project familiar instruments are used in ways which till now have been impossible," he added. We won't know how this new man-robot collaboration pans out until the EP drops April 8th, so be sure to watch Squarepusher and Z-Machines's "Sad Robots Go Funny," and the robots' other YouTube videos.