Feb. 15 concert/symposium to feature acoustic and robotic instruments from early-modern to contemporary era

Attitudes toward technology tend to be fraught, often involving equal parts suspicion and fascination: Does technology save time or steal it? Does it connect or disengage us? And is music, an art form prized for its expressive powers, compromised when generated by a computer or other automated device?

On February 15, 2016, Mason Gross Music Department professors Rebecca Cypess and Steven Kemper will host a symposium and concert, Expressive Engines: Musical Technologies from Automata to Robots, which will grapple with these questions, delving into attitudes toward the role of technology in music making. Scholars will explore automatic music
    This 19th-century 4-Tune Keywind Cylinder Musical Box will perform excerpts
    from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell.

from the early-modern era to the present, as well as the unease that the subject tends to engender. All events are open to the public.

Music technology professor Kemper, who also composes and performs music employing robots, says he believes “technology-mediated performances can be musically expressive,” though he also allows that “some question how music can be meaningful or expressive if it’s not performed by a human being.” 

Cypess, a musicologist and performer, agrees. She says the tension between technology and music isn’t merely theoretical--and it’s not new.

“I think as a society we are still uneasy about technology in general. We worry about whether we are overloading ourselves with computers, iPads, iPods, TVs, with Facebook, with Twitter,” she says. “Yet I think we can take some comfort in the fact that we are not the first to face these problems. Descartes thought that automated machines were more reliable than people, since people make mistakes. But a century later, Diderot made fun of people around him who acted without thinking, comparing them to automata.

“The place of music in all this is really interesting,” Cypess adds. “If music in general sparks us to creativity--as I think it should do--what does it mean when the music is created by a machine? Can machines be creative?”

Participating scholars are: Scott Barton (Worcester Polytechnic Institute); Rebecca Cypess (Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University); Emily Dolan (Harvard University); Bonnie Gordon (University of Virginia); Steven Kemper (Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University); Thomas Patteson (Curtis Institute of Music); Troy Rogers (Expressive Machines Musical Instruments).
    The robotic instrument Monochord-Aerophone Robotic
    Instrument Ensemble (MARIE) will perform at the concert.

The symposium runs from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Richard H. Shindell Choral Hall in Mortensen Hall. The event is free; tickets are not required. The 7:30 p.m. concert at the neighboring Nicholas Music Center highlights music from the early-modern and contemporary eras performed on acoustic instruments, automata, and musical robots. The concert will feature Rutgers students and faculty members playing alongside musical automatons from the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata of the Morris Museum, as well as the musical robots made by Expressive Machines Musical Instruments, a composers’ collective, performance troupe, and instrument design/development shop. Concert tickets are $15 for the general public, $10 for Rutgers alumni, employees, and seniors, and $5 for students.

Both venues are part of the Mason Gross Performing Arts Center at 85 George Street (between Route 18 and Ryders Lane), on the Douglass Campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick. For more information about any Mason Gross event, visit www.masongross.rutgers.edu. Tickets are available by calling the Mason Gross Performing Arts Center ticket office at 848-932-7511.

This symposium is organized by Mason Gross School of the Arts Music Department faculty members Rebecca Cypess and Steven Kemper. Special thanks to Mauk Hudig and the Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Posted January 2016