No wonder Christine Southworth couldn't
wait for rehearsal. Who wouldn't worry when you're introducing
a 50-foot-high electrostatic generator that produces
5 million volts of electricity to an ensemble of musicians
who'll be playing along with it.
Oh, and there's also a very tall musical
robot in the shape of a DNA molecule that's contributing
to the fun.
Composer Southworth, robot-creating
sidekick Leila Hasan, nine musicians and several programmers
expect to get a major charge out of the world premiere
of "Zap! Music for Van de Graaff Generator, Robots,
Instruments and Voices'' at the Museum of Science's Theater
of Electricity on Friday.
When Southworth and Hasan say there's
never been anything like it, believe them.
"It got kind of insane,'' said
Harvard native Southworth with a laugh.
She and fellow recent MIT grad Hasan
cooked up the project about a year ago. The MIT connections
run deep on "Zap!'' - starting with the fact that
the duo met as members of the school's Gamelan Galak
Tika, an ensemble that puts a funky twist on the music
It turns out that once Southworth started
writing music she discovered human musicians often couldn't
keep up with what she was composing.
"Players are often flummoxed by
the things Christine wants them to play, and often feel
it's nearly impossible,'' Hasan said.
The solution? Hasan volunteered to create
robots to handle Southworth's contemporary music charts,
which often feature blurringly fast passages.
"She creates music that only robots
can play,'' said Hasan, who was captain of the first
all-female team on the cable TV program "Junkyard
Wars'' a couple of years ago.
Southworth actually goes a bit easier
on her musicians than Hasan would lead you to believe.
She calls her compositions "post-minimalist acoustic
electronica,'' influenced by everyone from Steve Reich
and Meredith Monk to Kraftwerk and A Tribe Called Quest.
She says her pieces can be as gently balladic as they
are hard-driving and otherworldly.
"Some parts are very pretty
and slow and chordal,'' she said. "Other parts rock
When the museum's Van de Graaff generator
kicks in, it will all get thunderclap loud for an instant,
no surprise given that the generator is the world's largest.
"That's why we wanted to
have the musicians finally meet with the robots and the
generator,'' said Southworth about the rehearsal earlier
this week. "When the machine zaps, it's very loud
and everyone has to get used to not reacting too much
Southworth and Hasan founded Ensemble
Robot after graduating in 2002 and 2001 respectively.
They convinced Cambridge's LEF Foundation to provide
seed money to build the robots for this project.
Don't think C-3PO or R2-D2 of "Star
Wars'' fame, however.
"There's a conception that
robots are supposed to look like human beings,'' said
Hasan, who works on instrumentation and automation for
a local biotech firm. "But in industry, 'robots'
usually mean something that performs a task like a human
being, although they don't necessarily look like a human
A musical robot will greet audience
members as they enter Friday, while at center stage will
be a 10-foot-high xylophone robot in the shape of a double
helix that essentially plays itself. It has a large column
of xylophone keys programmed to be struck by small valves.
"It's really beautiful and cool
looking,'' Southworth said.
"The thing I like about robot music
is that it's very, very precise. You can time things
exactly the way you want and get parts to interlock exactly
how you'd want them. I can do that on robots, and it's
really hard to do with humans. But I'm combining them
because where humans do some things well, robots can
do other things well.''
Hasan wants to create robots that are
interactive and can learn from human players and create
their own music.
Southworth is hoping to take things
on the road.
"I'd love to bring this music to
other electrostatic generators all over the world,''
she said. ``It would definitely be fun.''
("Zap! Music for Van de Graaff
Generator, Robots, Instruments and Voices'' takes place
Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of Science's Theater
of Electricity. Call 617-905-6804 or go to www.ensemblerobot.com.