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for virtual and robotic strings and percussion

by Scott Barton

robotic instruments by WPI’s Music Perception and Robotics Lab and EMMI

Mechanophore was inspired by the force-sensitive molecular units of the same name. As mechanophores are subjected to physical forces, they activate chemical reactions that can communicate their state (e.g. color change) or even heal themselves. The musical work represents this process of increasing tension to the point of ring opening, out of which a texture whose nature ascends and heals emerges. The second section represents a particular mechanophore, spiropyran, more literally by tracing the molecule’s skeletal structure in its pitch contours. Just as force makes spiropyran transform into a different molecule (merocyanine), the musical theme morphs into new configurations as it progresses. After another ring opening, the final section of the work represents interactions between individual polymers within a material, which can be characterized by entanglement, bridging, paths of motion, qualities, sizes, velocities, densities and loops. 

More philosophically, the piece shows the wonder and complexity of the microscopic world through sonic elements that border on the threshold of perceptibility. As polymer science brings the distinction between the ideas of organic and synthetic into focus, the music illustrates the continuum between these poles through various kinds of virtual and acoustic instruments (including the robotic string instruments PAM and Cyther) that are combined and manipulated in a panoply of ways. Spiropyran elastomers were used as membranes for PVC drums played by robotic actuators made from 3D-printed PLA, thus connecting the metaphors of the work to its physical realization. Mechanophore was commissioned by the Multiverse Concert Series in collaboration with the polymer scientists of the MONET group.

Tempo Mecho


for the robotic instruments PAM, modular percussion and percussive aerophone (built by WPI’s MPR Lab and EMMI)

by Scott Barton

A groove changes identity depending on the tempo it inhabits. Typically, there are small ranges within which a rhythm feels at home. Once there, a rhythm reveals the energy, detail and character of its true self. Some rhythms are travelers, able to assimilate into contrasting locales. Some rhythms are chameleons, changing their colors depending on their temporal context. tempo macho explores some of the ways that tempo change can affect our sense of musical material. Here, tempos can change gradually and also can shift abruptly according to a variety of mathematical ratios. These movements occur over a range of time scales to illuminate the rhythmic limits of short-term memory and what is required to entrain to a cyclic pattern that reveals a groove. A theme persists throughout the piece to make these rhythmic aspects, which also include unusual meters and polyrhythms, clear. The temporal complexity of these ideas finds a natural voice through mechatronic instruments.

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.


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).