Squarepusher’s robots: the future of live music?

Experimental beat virtuoso Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher) has entered the battle of man VS machine and it’s hard to know whether to stare in amazement or take cover and be terrified.

Composed with the human touch, but performed by three super-human Japanese bots known as Z- Machines, Jenkinson’s latest EP Music For Robots challenges thoughts and feelings about musical performance, and even humanity. His aim was to find out if ‘these robots could play music that’s emotionally engaging.’ Which is of course open to interpretation. ‘ But even if one person says yes, that tells me something. The world of music performance is seen as sovereign human territory, and if a robot can encroach on it and generate a performance that people find compelling, I think that is a historical event,” Jenkinson says.

If Kraftwerk revolutionised electronic music in the 70s, perhaps fearless thinkers like Jenkinson are about to cause another uprising. In true Hollywood blockbuster style it is quite possible that 100 years from now robots will not only play music, but write it too.  A fact that’s as exciting for humanity as it is worrying.

Looking at the progress of virtual bands, from the 70’s Josie and the Pussycats, to the 00’s Gorillaz and the more recent appearance of the late Tupac in hologram form at Coachella, proves evolution is present in virtual music performance. Even without flesh and blood. Gorillaz aren’t real, but their deep cultural relevance has made them easy for fans to identify with. The link with Damon Albarn provides the oxygen in this cartoon band’s lungs. While the Z-Machines look alarming, they are merely a projection of human creation.

z machines

There is no denying the genius behind programming a 28-fingered guitarist and a drummer with 22 arms (there’s also a risk of a terrible racket!) and the music these startling machines create for Jenkinson is unquestionably beautiful. Does the removal of the ‘ego’ make for a more focussed performance, or does it simply become lifeless?  Wherever your opinion sits on the scale of flesh and technology, there’s a chilling intrigue and fascination in watching these cold, hard machines.

Music For Robots is an art installation, a statement on society and culture, more than it is a ‘live performance.’  Those 22 arms may be capable of snare and high hat mayhem but could they give a track the John Bonham effect? As humans, we naturally feel love and adoration for artists’ whose music we like: are teenagers destined to bedroom walls covered in robots?

We looked at the compelling argument of man VS machine in our recent SXSW report and found it impossible to draw a solid conclusion. If Z-Machines are not just a gimmick, could they soon be snapping selfies, selling out stadium shows, cementing our AI future? As Generation Remix become more entangled with technology and less caught up in the physical world, it’s not so whacky to think about machines in this way. Maybe it’s time to plug into the Matrix.

Download Squarepusher’s Music For Robots here.



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