Ensemble Robot creators `Zap!' preconceived ideas of electronic music
By Bob Young,
The Boston Herald - the Edge: Tuesday, February 1, 2005

No wonder Christine Southworth couldn't wait for rehearsal. Who wouldn't worry when you're introducing a 50-foot-high electrostatic generator that produces 5 million volts of electricity to an ensemble of musicians who'll be playing along with it.

Oh, and there's also a very tall musical robot in the shape of a DNA molecule that's contributing to the fun.

Composer Southworth, robot-creating sidekick Leila Hasan, nine musicians and several programmers expect to get a major charge out of the world premiere of "Zap! Music for Van de Graaff Generator, Robots, Instruments and Voices'' at the Museum of Science's Theater of Electricity on Friday.

When Southworth and Hasan say there's never been anything like it, believe them.

"It got kind of insane,'' said Harvard native Southworth with a laugh.

She and fellow recent MIT grad Hasan cooked up the project about a year ago. The MIT connections run deep on "Zap!'' - starting with the fact that the duo met as members of the school's Gamelan Galak Tika, an ensemble that puts a funky twist on the music of Bali.

It turns out that once Southworth started writing music she discovered human musicians often couldn't keep up with what she was composing.

"Players are often flummoxed by the things Christine wants them to play, and often feel it's nearly impossible,'' Hasan said.

The solution? Hasan volunteered to create robots to handle Southworth's contemporary music charts, which often feature blurringly fast passages.

"She creates music that only robots can play,'' said Hasan, who was captain of the first all-female team on the cable TV program "Junkyard Wars'' a couple of years ago.

Southworth actually goes a bit easier on her musicians than Hasan would lead you to believe. She calls her compositions "post-minimalist acoustic electronica,'' influenced by everyone from Steve Reich and Meredith Monk to Kraftwerk and A Tribe Called Quest. She says her pieces can be as gently balladic as they are hard-driving and otherworldly.

 "Some parts are very pretty and slow and chordal,'' she said. "Other parts rock and groove.''

When the museum's Van de Graaff generator kicks in, it will all get thunderclap loud for an instant, no surprise given that the generator is the world's largest.

 "That's why we wanted to have the musicians finally meet with the robots and the generator,'' said Southworth about the rehearsal earlier this week. "When the machine zaps, it's very loud and everyone has to get used to not reacting too much to that.''

Southworth and Hasan founded Ensemble Robot after graduating in 2002 and 2001 respectively. They convinced Cambridge's LEF Foundation to provide seed money to build the robots for this project.

Don't think C-3PO or R2-D2 of "Star Wars'' fame, however.

 "There's a conception that robots are supposed to look like human beings,'' said Hasan, who works on instrumentation and automation for a local biotech firm. "But in industry, 'robots' usually mean something that performs a task like a human being, although they don't necessarily look like a human at all.''

A musical robot will greet audience members as they enter Friday, while at center stage will be a 10-foot-high xylophone robot in the shape of a double helix that essentially plays itself. It has a large column of xylophone keys programmed to be struck by small valves.

"It's really beautiful and cool looking,'' Southworth said.

"The thing I like about robot music is that it's very, very precise. You can time things exactly the way you want and get parts to interlock exactly how you'd want them. I can do that on robots, and it's really hard to do with humans. But I'm combining them because where humans do some things well, robots can do other things well.''

What's next?

Hasan wants to create robots that are interactive and can learn from human players and create their own music.

Southworth is hoping to take things on the road.

"I'd love to bring this music to other electrostatic generators all over the world,'' she said. ``It would definitely be fun.''

("Zap! Music for Van de Graaff Generator, Robots, Instruments and Voices'' takes place Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of Science's Theater of Electricity. Call 617-905-6804 or go to www.ensemblerobot.com. )