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The Conductor in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

If you want to consult the oracle, turn off your AdBlocker. You will then conjure your deepest desires—and, more importantly, the most superficial ones—through the clouds of internet incense. Even more enlightening, however, are the ads that precede the YouTube video you’ve clicked on. These predict the future with the fateful accuracy of a Euripidean prologue.

And so it was a few weeks ago when reports filtered back from Europe that a new conducting robot had made a “stunning” debut at the head of the Lucca Philharmonic in a program of orchestral and opera favorites from the Pisa opera house, the Teatro Verdi in Italy. I hastened to YouTube in search of footage of this latest attempt to supplant human maestro with artificially intelligent machine.

My AdBlocker was paused and before I got to the highlights of the concert a commercial for Knightscope Autonomous Security Robots appeared on my screen. A smiley female voice-over informed me that I might already have seen these delightful creatures in malls, stadiums, and parking lots. A trio of wholesome teenager girls took selfies with the four-foot-high polished white cone. A seasonal red model glided through a mall on unseen wheels past display windows, shoppers, and Christmas trees.  As the woman said that the Knightscope robots “are already making a difference across California and are starting to expand nationwide,” I was treated to a stunning shot from a drone as it swooped past one of the robots standing alone in a vast, empty parking fringed by a row of lonely palms with of a couple of distant high rises visible beyond the ocean of bleached concrete. It is your chance to invest, proclaimed the voice, “to become part of a brighter, safer, and exciting future.” What exactly is brighter, safer and more exciting about a world of mechanized surveillance patrols in the already dehumanizing public spaces that define modern America is way beyond me. The oracle knows something I don’t.  That’s why she’s the oracle.

With the message of this visionary prelude heard and seen, if not yet understood, YouTube winged me to the Teatro Verdi, its well-proportioned neo-classical façade and sumptuous golden interior crowned by a shimmering cupola like a portal to the heavens—this theatre is a real urban place as opposed to the American mallscape nightmare.

The ad begins not outside the hall, but inside it in what looks like a hospital room, harsh light glaring off white walls. Ulrich Spiesshofer, the CEO of the Zurich-headquartered ABB robotics, stands over his baby, YuMi, a white and gray contraption that looks rather like a double drill press. The torso sits on a gurney as Spiesshofer praises his progeny for its human qualities, especially its intuitive ability to learn how to enact the movements of a conductor. “Tonight we are truly writing history and writing the future of robotics applications,” he beams, as YuMi looks dumbly down at the baton in its right hand. There are no left-handed conductors.

From the somber isolation of this stark waiting room where the conductor does not take a last drag on a cigarette or slug down a bracer of whiskey, but instead receives the final massage of a software update, we cut to the stage of the theatre. Here the Lucca orchestra’s conductor Andrea Colombini extols the space-age robot seen in the background, ornate loges rising behind. “The flexibility of the arms of YuMi is absolutely unthinkable for a machine!” Colombini exclaims of his protégé, whose motions have been learned from the Lucca director.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the more accurate the imitation, the more sincere. No wonder Colombini is so rapturous in his praise: the arc and tempo of his baton have been cloned; the magic of his motions has been made immortal. Plus, all the publicity can’t hurt the profile of his orchestra.  For its part, ABB is thrilled because this “application” provides proof of the capabilities of what it calls “the first truly collaborative human dual-arm robot.”

Colombini goes on to praise the economic value generated by the new auto-conductor. Since many a maestro has a busy calendar of engagements around the world—London, New York, Paris, Berlin—he cannot always be with an orchestra he leads.  YuMi can step in (or more accurately, be rolled in) to take the first rehearsal and set the tempo, and then, says Colombini, “the man”—the gender is important—arrives to supply the “sensitivity and nuance” that the machine cannot.  This model collaboration could potentially mean major cost-savings: hello YuMi, goodbye assistant conductors.

Few figures have larger carbon footprints than modern orchestral conductors, and the most famous and successful among them accumulate positions and fees with an imperial zeal. Robot assistants would mean, at least in the short-term, more wealth and power for the ever-fewer human winners—on the conductor’s podium and in the boardroom. ABB has already placed more than 300,000 robots in more than fifty countries. But if the assistant conductor is expendable, what about the maestro himself? Honda trotted out a diminutive four-limbed conductor  and violin player a decade ago.  The violinist sounded robotic—one of the worst insults a musician can sustain. The Honda conductor didn’t sound at all. That is precisely why the musical value, if any, of a robot conductor can never be quantified.

Next up in the Pisa video we meet the brightest human star of the historic night, the pop and classical-crossover tenor, Andrea Bocelli.  He is blind. As Bocelli is introduced to YuMi by Spiesshofer, the singer caresses the robot’s arms with his hands, feeling what the machine looks like. Both figuratively and literally, it is a touching scene.

But it also comes dangerously to the lifting the veil on the maestro myth: for Bocelli the robot’s motions aren’t unthinkable, as Colombini claimed. They’re invisible. And if the tenor can’t even see YuMi then how can she be doing anything truly necessary?

When Bocelli takes to the stage to sing Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” he turns towards the conductor before the orchestral introduction begins: it’s an apt metaphor for the fantasy being played out before us. Does a braille orchestra need a conductor? Scratchy, out-of-tune, and unsynchronized, the Lucca Philharmonic doesn’t even do it do its best to act as if it is following the baton in the robot’s right hand, the left miming the claw that is the default human gesture for generic expressivity. The unsighted Bocelli follows and leads and follows as he always does—a give and take that is the essence of group music-making.

During the performance a couple of orchestra members are seen to chat with one another, something they would never risk with a human conductor. Perhaps a couple of Knightscope heavies could be hired to maintain discipline. When not playing, some musicians star at the machine dubiously, giving free expression to a longstanding resentment of conductors, a feeling exacerbated by the humiliation of having had to pretend their music is really being conjured by the robot.

Fifty years ago that the most scathingly skeptical commentator on the conductor, the German philosopher, social critic, and music lover (and music hater, at least when it came to jazz), Theodor Adorno claimed that “a description of the conduct of orchestra musicians would amount to a phenomenology of recalcitrance. The primary factor is unwillingness to submit.” The Lucca band barely goes through the motions as YuMi goes through hers. But these video clips can’t conceal their contempt, ranging from the comic to the bored to the downright hostile.

Adorno also pointed to the fact that the conductor stands above the sitting orchestra like a whip-wielding lion tamer. That the legless Yumi appears to sit, almost like James Levine in his wheelchair before he was unceremoniously retired by the Metropolitan Opera last year, helps calm unease at the possibility that the venerable institution of the human orchestra might soon be made redundant. The gender of the robot’s name—hardly covered up by the capitalization and the trademark symbol that follows the last letter—is important: a mechanical she with a baton is less threatening than a mechanical he. (This is one of the main lessons to be learned from the fascinating 2015 film Ex machina, and also explains why the Knightscope oracle is female.)

Adorno argued that “the conductor acts as though he were taming the orchestra, but his real target is the audience.” And so it was in Pisa at YuMi’s debut: her goal is not to interpret a musical score, but to sell herself—as many of her as possible.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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