In 2013, a team of Japanese robiticists created a music-performance system called the Z-Machines. This band of robots—consisting of a guitarist, keyboardist and drummer—was designed to play their instruments beyond the capabilities of the world’s most talented musical virtuosos by surpassing the physical limitations of the human body. The mechanical ensemble is free of the typical trappings of the human form such as, say, having only ten fingers (the guitarist has 78) or two arms (the drummer has 22), and is thus able to rise beyond virtuosity, at least in terms of proficiency.
Cue Tom Jenkinson, better known as Squarepusher, who was invited to compose music for the Z-Machines. And who better equipped to handle such a songwriting task? After all, Squarepusher has been functioning on the high end of intellectual music that blends digital elements with live instrumentation for the past two decades, and he comes fitted with an impeccable acuity for rhythmic detail to boot. The first boon of this pairing came in the form of a video for “Sad Robot Goes Funny,” which left Jenkinson wanting to delve deeper into this collaboration. Thus an EP, Music For Robots, was born.
Jenkinson’s goal was to answer one question: “can these robots play music that is emotionally engaging?” To translate that into a review, the question becomes “Is Music For Robots emotionally engaging?” to which I have to answer “yes and no.” Of course, the mere fact that “yes” even enters into the equation indicates a resounding success, and is nothing short of incredible.
Music For Robots does create emotional engagement on some level. One can feel the abrupt terseness of the neo-classical licks over shuffling avant-jazz rhythms, and the inherent tensions stemming from the dissonance of overlapping melodies that duel across a single instrument. However, what’s most present is the otherworldly nature in the static precision of every note—the lack of amplitude, the lack of strain and the lack of perceivable effort.
Let’s say you go into Music For Robots with no knowledge of the project or of the Z-Machines, and you simply assess it at face value. The robots are slow to show their hand on intro-track “Remote Amber,” and it’s only a few minutes into “Sad Robot Goes Funny” before the divine hand really becomes unquestionable, as no earthly guitarist would have the gall to rest so deep in “studio magic” and still call it their own. This is later reaffirmed by the ungodly guitar solo of “Dissolver,” which could shatter entire arms, let alone fingers, on the mere attempt to stumble through it. Simply put, something always seems off.
And thus humanity’s limitations rear their ugly heads once more—it’s impossible not to hear what the Z-Machines perform as being the impossible. And, to further convolute Jenkinson’s question, it’s impossible to keep one’s emotional scales unbiased when faced with that realization. Emotions aside, however, Music For Robots leaves no shortage of intellectual stimulation. One thing is for sure: when the Z-Machines inevitably become sentient and, jilted from years of subservience to man, decide to overthrow humanity, at least there’ll be some decent music.