The composer/violin/laptop performer talks about music, technology and robot love

Todd Reynolds and LEMUR perform as part of the Mobtown Modern series

March 9 at the Windup Space

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If you’re of a certain age and you hear “music” and “robots” and imagine them on a stage together, you might get an image of Chuck E. Cheese’s Munch’s Make Believe Band creepily performing for some kid’s birthday party. My how the world has raced forward from such 1980s nightmares. Meet LEMUR—the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots—a robot band of sorts created by New Yorker Eric Singer that has remarkably transcended gimmick to be a genuine performance and recording tool. Composer and laptop/violin performer Todd Reynolds—of the Bang on a Can ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians—is one of the latest in a long series of musicians that have collaborated with Singer and LEMUR. One robot track appears on Reynolds’ upcoming two-disc album Outerborough and, for Mobtown Modern, he’s put together an entire program of robot-assisted modern composition and improvisation. City Paper talked to Reynolds last week from New York about the endless braid of music and technology, why his 17th-century violin makes perfect sense with a laptop, and robot love.


City Paper : How did you get involved with the robots?

Todd Reynolds: Eric is a long-term fixture in New York City. From They Might be Giants to . . . just like everybody in New York has taken their turn with the robots in some shape or fashion. I got interested a couple of years ago when my buddy Mike did some things with them, and he said, “Man, you should really take a turn with the robots.” I worked something out with Eric just to do a little work with them and very, very soon after we wound up doing a tour of Poland together. I have just been in love ever since.


CP : What made/keeps you working with them?

TR: I’ve been working in digital music for a long time. Most if not all of my work takes place inside of a laptop. The physical part of it is my violin. I still play a regular old 17th-century violin, which I amplify and work with in the computer. I think I have an interest in it because, having worked with digital music for so long, it’s really nice to have a mechanical instrument on the outside. It’s not just working with numbers, with some sort of abstract sound maker. It’s working with something that’s mechanical that you can see and feel.

And yet it comes from all of the work that’s on the inside of the laptop. Without going too artificial intelligence on you, it has a presence. It’s not a human presence but it’s a presence. That is, number one, very cool. And, number two, I grew up with a father who was an organist, a church organist. So I remember my earliest days sitting at the organ with him and saying, “Hey Daddy, can I pull out this stop, can I pull out that stop?” And I would hear the sound change when I pulled on the physical knob, you know?

I quickly drew the conclusion as well that the organ is simply a keyboard which is playing these instruments, which are pipes, on the outside. So this controlling an instrument that’s on the outside is very appealing. Later on, my father got into the theater organ scene. And theater organs, like for silent films, had pneumatic devices which would play a kick-drum, a cowbell, would blow air through an oboe or air through a clarinet. These were mechanical things, and the robots represent that for me.


CP : Mobtown Modern’s synopsis says this show is to be “fully automated.” What does that mean?

TR: The way that it’s a fully automated experience is that the whole show runs off the laptop, whether I’m improvising or playing set pieces. There’s always an element of improvisation when I play, so I need to be able to kick those robots in and out.

That makes [the band] a live instrument that is being played. The sequence of how that all goes down is controlled by a live performer. The speed that it goes down, when it goes down, how it all goes down is controlled by me. I am playing the robots. Sometimes I ask them to play something that I have prepared, but that’s part of the overall gestalt.


CP : How is the compositional process different for the robots?

TR: It’s the same thing as if I was writing for a cello; the GuitarBot happens to have the same tuning as a cello. So, I’m essentially composing for that timbre, for the way that that instrument sounds. It’s not so much that I’m composing in another technical way, because the technical stuff is still the technical stuff. But what I am looking for is, How does the instrument sound? It’s no different than if I was composing for a saxophone or a bass clarinet. It has its own sound. And its own way of behaving.


CP : Have you reached a limit with the robots?

TR: Oh man, the robots blow up, my friend. They’re mechanical so the parts wear out sometimes. And we always hope that won’t happen, but sometimes it does. And that’s why Eric, their creator, is there. To take care of those things.

One of my favorite stories is the last concert we all did. We were in the middle of one of the pieces, and a guy who was sitting next to Eric and knew that he was the robot master leaned over to him and said, “It’s smoking Eric. It’s smoking.” And Eric was like, “Thank you very much. Thank you.” And the guy was, “No man, it’s smoking,” pointing to the robot. You get the joke, right?


CP : Yup.

TR: One of the motors on one of the strings had started smoking. What happens is when they heat up, some of the epoxy inside started to smoke. So we unplugged it, let it cool down, and we’re good to go.


CP : Is there a general limit to what a composer can do with a robot?

TR: Not at all. It’s a learning process. And there’s always more and more robots. I remember a gig I did with Eric last year. We walked in and set up all the instruments and all of a sudden he disappeared. I walk backstage and there he is wearing a welding mask, making a new instrument. And about 15 minutes later, he came out, strapped it on the rack and said, “This is going to be note number 56” or whatever. “Here’s your new instrument.”


CP : Do you worry that there’s a limit, that there’s a point in the intersection between music and technology where it’s just too much?

TR: Not at all. Every single culture and every time in music has made the best use of technology. It’s true from the very beginning. Violins, as you know I’m sure, used to be strung with less tension because the sound needed to fill less space. Music took place in the courts, in a smaller room. Then all of a sudden came the architects and theaters that were commissioned, and then all of a sudden you multiply the people in that room and you need to multiply the sound. So, all of the sudden, there’s a different neck on the fiddle and there’s more tension on the strings so the sound carries more. And then you move forward and you begin to get different instruments, and you get the electric guitar. And then you get amplifiers, you get electricity. You get huge sound systems for huge stadiums.

There’s this sort of triangle between the performer, the composer, and the architect. And that’s technology for me. Technology is not just electronic. It’s physical and mechanical. So this constant evolution is always going to produce new ways of doing music.

Does it bother me that people can make music so much more easily, on an iPad or a computer? Was that part of your question?


CP : No, I tend to argue that increased access is always a good thing for music.

TR: Yeah, exactly. Some people, some musicians are bothered because it changes the curve. You get people with their hands on a computer and it’s like, “Oh I’m a musician now” without going through all of the skill-work to become a musician that we went through. That doesn’t bother me at all. I think the rapid evolution of technology is nothing but a wonderful thing.

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