Mind / Iron
by Bryan Bergeron, Editor ;
Jazz guitarist and composer, Pat Matheny, is probably
known to most of you. What you may not be aware of is
the array of mechatronic instruments behind and around
him. If you take a good look at the photo, you can see
solenoids attached to most of the instruments. The only
unmodified, manually operated instrument in the photo is
his Ibanez hollowbody guitar.
What you also may not be aware of is Eric Singer —
the man responsible for creating all those instruments.
Eric is the founder of the non-profit League of Electronic
Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR) — a group of artists and
technologists who develop robotic musical instruments.
He was kind enough to share his background in robotics
and music, and how he was able to fuse the two. What
follows is a condensed version of my interview with Eric.
Who are you, and what kindled your interest in
“I list my titles as engineer, musician, programmer,
and artist. I have been playing music (mostly saxophones)
most of my life. I became interested in computers at an
early age, convincing my father to buy us an Apple II. In
engineering school, I did some early electronic musical
instrument building. Eventually, I saw this as a way of
combining my left and right brain interests and as a
potential career path. For many years, I built unusual
instruments for humans to play computerized sounds —
instruments like the Sonic Banana (a bend-sensing rubber
tube) and various data gloves and electronic batons.
These send musical data to a computer in the form of
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) messages to
produce synthesized music.
At a certain point, I thought, “What would be the
flip side of this?” To me, it was to send data in the other
direction — out of the computer — and use it to play
“real” (i.e., live acoustically based) instruments. This led to
the idea of robotic and mechatronic instruments.”
What came first for you — your interest in music or
“Music, certainly. I’ve been playing music
professionally for most of my life. In parallel, I was
deeply interested in technology — electronics, computers,
etc. — from an early age. In college, I began to find
ways to combine these interests.”
Which of your instruments are you most proud of?
Why? How long did it take to create?
“The GuitarBot was the first robot I created with two
other members of the group, Kevin Larke and David
Bianciardi. It took two years to complete, mostly because
we started with no mechanical engineering, robotic, or
machining experience. We gained this along the way
through experimentation, and trial and error. When we
needed to design a mechanical system, we looked to
existing devices for inspiration. For example, the sliding
bridge mechanism that controls pitch on the GuitarBot is
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Katz.
6 SERVO 06.2010