The Machine Orchestra explodes the idea of a laptop orchestra, building a full-blown machine ensemble of the future. We turn to guest writer Jordan, a member of the ensemble, to look behind the scenes in a couple of articles. Rejoin us for part two later this week. -Ed.

Welcome to the world of Dr. Ajay Kapur and Michael Darling, the two California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) professors behind a novel laptop powered ensemble, the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra. Inspired by the work of visionary laptop ensemble pioneers and long-time friends Dan Trueman, Perry Cook (PLORk) and Ge Wang (SLOrk), Kapur has assembled a powerhouse of technical minds and creative musicians to create a laptop group unique in its own right. Backed by Kapur’s background in Musical Robotics and sensor systems, and Darling’s years of experience in technical theater design and mechanical engineering, the Machine Orchestra is taking the “laptop ensemble” into new territories.

With both the recent posts on musical robotics here on CDM and the debut of the Machine Orchestra at REDCAT / Walt Disney Theatre (LA) just days away, what better time to introduce the Machine Orchestra? The following is the first of a series of posts which I will be guest-writing here at CDM on the creation of the Machine Orchestra, the artists behind it, and the all-new undergraduate powerhouse that is the CalArts Music Technology: Intelligence, Interaction, and Design (MTIID) program.

For today’s article, I got to sit down and pick the minds of the conductors themselves, so without further ado, welcome Ajay Kapur and Michael Darling.

KarmetiK Machine Orchestra – REDCAT Preview from KarmetiK on Vimeo.

J.H: Ajay, How did you get started with musical robotics?

A.K: I was fortunate enough to study with Eric Singer in Brooklyn with LEMUR. He taught me the world of microchips and introduced me to mechanical engineering (Eric, thanks for showing me how to use a mill). Two years later, I crossed paths with the world-famous Trimpin, who has changed my life forever. Completely inspired, I began building my first robot, the MahaDeviBot—a robotic percussionist that models an Indian Goddess with 12 arms playing multiple instruments.

J.H: What is the Machine Orchestra?

A.K: The Machine Orchestra stems from the idea of localized sound. Inspired by the hemispherical speakers used by PLOrk and SLOrk, our goal is to take localization a step further, by distributing robots and instruments throughout a venue so that the audience can see and hear how the sounds are being created on stage. My aesthetic involves the physicality of performance– showing the audience what the electronic performers are doing through the use of gestural interfaces and robotic kinetics. The Machine Orchestra debut on Jan 27 has over 10 performers, 43 actuators, and 65 speakers. Very exciting. Check out our website for a detailed description of what to expect.

J.H: Michael, how did you get involved with Ajay and what is your involvement in The Machine Orchestra?

Michael Darling: Well this whole thing started as random conversations and a student’s idea. My student Matt Setzer had been using the programming and interface techniques he was getting from Ajay and the fabrication skills he was getting from me in his personal art making. After Matt forced Ajay and I to meet, what I remember from our first meeting is that we met in a hallway, walked down the hallway, and by the end of our short walk we had hatched a plan of collaboration …In the Machine Orchestra, I mentor and direct the physical and tangible aspects of the project. At this point, I create the physical armature that lets the robotic instruments perform. I also teach and guide the exploration and development of the design, mechanical and structural aesthetic. I am working with Jeremiah Thies (CalArts Theater Faculty) who has brought us his expertise in video design and technology.

J.H: What is the visual aesthetic of The Machine Orchestra?

M.D: When I started in on this project Ajay had already been building robot instruments for some time and was using a product called 80/20 which is basically industrial LEGO. It worked great except for the fact that it looked like 80/20 and that drove me crazy… I have always seen these robots as individualized organic forms and the construction of them to be an additive process with each aspect building off the next. At this point, we are trying to hide the fact we are making this out of scrap and surplus. I think we are still looking for what will physically make the Machine Orchestra look like “ours”.

J.H: What might we expect from the Machine Orchestra in the future?

A.K: This project is ready to tour. After our show in January, I hope we can start performing all over the world. We have made all the robots travel-ready and they can fit in suitcases…coming to a city near you! We also have 3 new robots in the works, but what they are remains a secret :).