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Cyther: A human-playable, self-tuning robotic zither

S. Barton, E. Prihar, P. Carvalho (2017). Cyther: a human-playable, self-tuning robotic zither. In proceedings of The 17th International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Human-robot musical interaction typically consists of independent, physically-separated agents. We developed Cyther – a human-playable, self-tuning robotic zither – to allow a human and a robot to interact cooperatively through the same physical medium to generate music. The resultant co- dependence creates new responsibilities, roles, and expressive possibilities for human musicians. We describe some of these possibilities in the context of both technical features and artistic implementations of the system.

Experiment in Augmentation 1

Spring 2017

In the work, a human performer, Cyther (a human-playable robotic zither) and modular percussion robots interact with each other. The interaction between these performers is enabled by both the physical design of Cyther and software written by the composer. The perceptual aspects of the system distinguish auditory events, create groupings and find patterns. In response to perceived information, the system can mimic, transform and generate material. It stores information about past events, and thus has memory, which shape the expressive choices that it makes. It is used in improvisatory contexts to illuminate unique gestures that are only possible through electromechanical actuation, which inspire a human performer to explore new expressive territory. The improvisations provide structure and freedom in order to both present the possibilities of this ensemble and allow for spontaneity. In particular, the work explores rhythms and timbres that are enabled by these machines.

Cyther

We often think of an instrument and the agent that plays it as unified. That is, we talk about a flautist or a violinist as a single thing that requires both human and instrument working symbiotically together. In other ways, performer and instrument are meaningfully distinct, and the boundary between the two is inflexible. What if this boundary is made porous, allowing the human to play the role of pseudo-static sound shaper while the instrument becomes dynamic and expressive? By integrating robotic actuation into a human-playable instrument, agency becomes amorphous and distributed as performer and machine interact through a shared medium. A human performer and the machine are able to fluidly move between the roles of impulse and filter. The robot inspires the performer with expressions made possible by mechanical actuation while the performer transforms these gestures by physically manipulating the instrument. Reciprocally, the performer can affect how the robotic system both interprets and generates ideas. The results illuminate the expressive spaces that are human, that are mechanical, that are shared between the two, and that emerge as these worlds synthesize. The actions of both become parts of a symbiotic whole, rather than self-contained instances that are co-located, thus the system exemplifies cooperative interaction. The project builds on the lineage of technology that seeks augmentation through human-machine symbiosis. The possibilities offered by such human-playable robotic musical instruments have been little explored (the vast majority of musical robots function autonomously).

 

Creativity in the Generation of Machine Rhythms

S. Barton (2016). In proceedings from The 1st Conference on Computer Simulation of Musical Creativity.

Abstract: This paper explores musical, psychological and philosophical ideas about how humans and machines interact in creative processes. It argues that creativity is a function of both generator and receiver, and that these roles can be amorphous in the creation and experience of electronic music. It offers an approach to structuring temporal spaces for rhythmic composition, which leads to the idea of machine rhythms, which are proposed as a promising area for creative expression.

Original Gravity Podcast: Rise of a City

Join Original Gravity Artistic Director Keith Kirchoff and Public Relations Guru Greg Carlson (both exceptional brewers) as they design a unique, homebrewed beer that will aesthetically pair with Scott Barton’s Rise of a City, a piece for musical robot and guitar featured on our Summer 2016 Mystic Brewery concert.

Intersections

for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello, tom-tom, PAM (robotic string instrument), and robotic percussion

Fall 2014 – Spring 2015

commissioned by the Juventas New Music Ensemble

Machine expressivity is often thought of as involving precision, speed, rhythmic complexity, non-idiomatic (for human performers) pitch patterns and replication.  Human expressivity is often thought of involving groove, phrasing, affect, contour, variation, articulation, entrainment and communication.  While these attributes help shape our conceptions of what is human versus what is mechanical, they are not confined to one category or the other: humans can be precise and robots can groove.  Expressive identity is more analog than digital.  This does not preclude expressive spaces that are unique to humans and machines, rather, it suggests the areas between them are ambiguous and that the attributes that define them do not do so in a one-to-one fashion (instead, attribute-space relationships are a function of combination and context).  The music explores these areas of ambiguity and clarity.  Genre is treated in a similar way such that stylistic exemplars are presented authentically and in transformation.  The intersections in expressive identity and style illuminate what is exclusive and what is shared.

Rise of a City

2009

for guitar and robotic ensemble (PAM, MADI and CADI)

produced and recorded by Scott Barton, mixed by Marc Urselli and Scott Barton at East Side Sound Studios, NYC

Rise of a City introduces a human performer to the robotic creations of EMMI (Expressive Machines Musical Instruments, expressivemachines.com) for the first time. The piece features complementary string parts (one played by a human guitarist, one played by the robotic string instrument PAM) that are supported by a robotic percussion ensemble. The piece explores mechanical gestures, human expression, virtuosity and synchronicity by placing specific musical ideas in a variety of instrumental and temporal spaces. Material is soloed and shared between the parts, giving us a sense of the unique expressive characteristics of human versus robotic instrumentalists. From the perspective of narrative, the musical interactions between human and machine can be understood through the metaphor of how ideas develop. Sometimes multiple groups of people simultaneously cultivate ideas towards similar goals even though they don’t live in the same place. Sometimes the paths of this race are parallel. Sometimes they diverge. When they diverge, the separation can result in either an alternate route to the original goal or a new path(s) that clears the way to previously unimagined possibilities. This has become a familiar phenomenon to us via technological innovation, scientific discovery, stylistic innovation and the construction of physical communities (dwellings → cities). The construction of physical communities has particular metaphoric weight in the case of this piece. From small beginnings a city exudes reiterative processes in multiple directions. New neighborhoods spring up that incorporate and / or react to adjacent areas. The restatements are accumulative, so that the entirety of the city becomes perpetually more massive and complex. At the same time, the most recent individual additions, buildings in the case of a city, mirror the qualities of the whole in terms of grandeur and intricacy. This path is not purely linear of course, and the ability to start simply, small-ly, or differently is always preserved.

MARIE: Monochord-Aerophone Robotic Instrument Ensemble

T. Rogers, S. Kemper, S. Barton (2015). In proceedings from The 15th International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression.

Abstract

The Modular Electro-Acoustic Robotic Instrument System (MEARIS) represents a new type of hybrid electroacoustic-electromechanical instrument model. Monochord-Aerophone Robotic Instrument Ensemble (MARIE), the first realization of a MEARIS, is a set of interconnected monochord and cylindrical aerophone robotic musical instruments created by Expressive Machines Musical Instruments (EMMI). MARIE comprises one or more matched pairs of Automatic Monochord Instruments (AMI) and Cylindrical Aerophone Robotic Instruments (CARI). Each AMI and CARI is a self-contained, independently operable robotic instrument with an acoustic element, a control system that enables automated manipulation of this element, and an audio system that includes input and output transducers coupled to the acoustic element. Each AMI-CARI pair can also operate as an interconnected hybrid instrument, allowing for effects that have heretofore been the domain of physical modeling technologies, such as a “plucked air column” or “blown string.” Since its creation, MARIE has toured widely, performed with dozens of human instrumentalists, and has been utilized by nine composers in the realization of more than twenty new musical works. link to paper

The Human, the Mechanical, and the Spaces in between: Explorations in Human-Robotic Musical Improvisation

S. Barton (2013).  Published in the Proceedings of the Ninth Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment International Conference (AIIDE 2013)

Abstract

HARMI (Human and Robotic Musical Improvisation) is a software and hardware system that enables musical robots to improvise with human performers. The goal of the system is not to replicate human musicians, but rather to explore the novel kinds of musical expression that machines can produce. At the same time, the system seeks to create spaces where humans and robots can communicate with each other in a common language. To help achieve the former, ideas from contemporary compositional practice and music theory were used to shape the system’s expressive capabilities. In regard to the latter, research from the field of cognitive psychology was incorporated to enable communication, interaction, and understanding between human and robotic performers. The system was partly developed in conjunction with a residency at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago, IL, where a group of human improvisers performed with the robotic instruments. The system represents an approach to the question of how humans and robots can interact and improvise in musical contexts. This approach purports to highlight the unique expressive spaces of humans, the unique expressive spaces of machines, and the shared spaces between the two. link to paper

Human-Robot Improvisation

I have been developing software that allows humans to improvise with the robots built by EMMI and the Music, Perception and Robotics Lab at WPI.  The bots have interacted with some wonderful performers:

Performance at Clark 2o-21 with Matt Jaskot, Peter Sulski and CADI / modular percussion instruments, Oct 30, 2013

Performance excerpt 2 at the Urban Canyon with Chris Fisher-Lochhead and Jenna Lyle, July 2013

Performance excerpt 1 at the Urban Canyon with Chris Fisher-Lochhead and Jenna Lyle, July 2013

Rehearsal 3 with Chris Fisher-Lochhead, Matt Orenstein and Alex Temple at HCL Chicago, July 2013

Rehearsal 2 with Chris Fisher-Lochhead, Matt Orenstein and Alex Temple at HCL Chicago, July 2013

Rehearsal 1 with Ammie Brod and Matt Orenstein at HCL Chicago, July 2013

HCL Chicago sponsored artist video

This is a video about my residency as a sponsored artist at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago in the summer of 2013.  By Carly Mostar.

<iframe src=”//player.vimeo.com/video/74431012″ width=”500″ height=”281″ frameborder=”0″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/74431012″>HCL Artist Video Series: Scott Barton, Sponsored Artist Summer 2013</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/hclchicago”>High Concept Laboratories</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

from here to there

2012

for the musical robots AMI and CARI; 5:00

From Here to There explores the transformational distance between contrasting entities. The idea of transformational distance, borrowed from psychology and algorithmic information theory, measures the similarity between entities as a function of the list of instructions that is required to transform entity A into entity B. The shorter and simpler the list, the more similar the entities are; the longer and more complex the list, the more dissimilar the entities are. The piece explores how such (dis)similarities affect the perception of musical (dis)continuity by juxtaposing and morphing between four themes. The piece explicitly measures inter-theme contrast by exhibiting the number of steps it takes to transform one theme into another. While we can interpret the idea of transformational steps in a variety of ways, in this work, I consider the number of compositional steps it takes to transform one entity into another. These steps are designed to be perceptually relevant and musically meaningful. In additional to transformational distance, ideas are expanded, manipulated, and developed according to compositional intuition and aesthetic considerations. Thus, an artistic context surrounds an experimental exploration.

Push for Position

2010-2011

for saxophone, bassoon, PAM, MARIE and electronics

Push for Position comprises a number of core trajectories that are defined by sound source (in this case, human-played instruments, robotic instruments, and synthesizers), high-level associations, and thematic material. These trajectories intertwine with each other so that when one rises to the surface, the others are eclipsed. In addition, the trajectories influence each other so that when one becomes prominent (the speaker), the others (the listeners) incorporate features of that illuminated gesture, which are exhibited when those listeners eventually speak. Thus, the piece has memory: its components learn from and influence each other. The result is a collection of highly discontinuous moments that become increasingly relatable as the trajectories of the work interact over time. In regard to the juxtaposition of trajectories, that is, when one speaker interrupts another, (dis)continuities are created according to feature (dis)agreement. An entity will share some features with its neighbors, but it will also exhibit unique characteristics. The balance between shared and contrasting features creates various kinds of (dis)continuity. In conjunction with the aforementioned type of organization, the piece’s proportional durations are partially governed by contextual identity. A gesture that is interpreted as unrelated to the rest of the piece may be the longest (durationally) and vice versa. Thus, the piece’s form experiments with notions of proportional aesthetics. Such conclusions are, of course, a matter of subjective judgment, so the listener plays an important role in determining the piece’s form.

Street Meetings

composed with Steven Kemper, Fall 2010

interactive installation for the musical robots PAM and CADI

Often, we shape our behavior in response to the ambient noise created by machines.  This piece explores a reconfiguration of this type of interaction: here, machines respond to the ambient noise created by people (and other machines).
There is an open microphone that invites passersby to utter songs, stray notes, speeches and unintelligible nonsense.  PAM is always polite to offer a response to such gestures.  The installation also monitors the ambient noise of the street and responds with rhythmic and melodic gestures that complement this contextual input.

Drum Circle

composed with Steven Kemper, Winter-Spring 2010

for the robotic instruments MADI, CADI and assorted found percussion instruments

Drum Circle features the robotic instruments MADI and CADI playing a diverse percussion ensemble that includes beer bottles, woodblocks, metal bowls and traditional drums in the woods of Virginia. In some sense, the colocation of machine and nature strikes us as a juxtaposition of things that cannot coexist. Indeed, machine / nature interactions often result in dramatic transformations where nature is displaced to make way for some unlike object(s) of human will. This is not such a story: here, the robots tuck peacefully into the landscape. This contextualization allows us to see and hear robots not as imperialist amalgams of electromagnets and plastic, but rather as agents that are governed by the kinetic and acoustic characteristics of our physical world that can cooperatively interact and coexist with surrounding objects. The lines between nature and machine are made fuzzy. Compositionally, the piece integrates unpredictable physical systems, machine listening and algorithmic responses. Over the course of the work, musical ideas are stated, absorbed, re-interpreted and stated again to create a cyclic yet developing story.

A video of the work is featured on the eco sono DVD Agents Against Agency