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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #507
The Hypermusicians
David Gunn

Maestro Artra breezed onto the stage, ascended the elevated podium, bowed stiffly to the audience, then turned to face the orchestra. As usual, he paused to gaze into the eyes of every musician, looking for any sign of doubt or trepidation. But there was none. From each player he sensed nothing less than an aura of cool confidence. Satisfied, he raised his baton and began to conduct. Although the piece was rhythmically challenging--the first measure alone featured simultaneous time signatures of 17/8, 21/22 and 5/391--Maestro Artra conducted with aplomb. As well he should, for his programmers had worked at length with the composer to define and describe the score's every nuance, a number that approached 251 million discrete gestures. The gestures were sequenced and then encoded into ALGOL 9000, a language that Artra--the upshot of the Argentine-Russian-Taiwanese Robot Association--spoke fluently. The musicians, too, were all automatons, though each possessed a constantly evolving artificial intelligence so sophisticated that it bordered on humanhood, and a concert by l'orchestre automate was no longer thought of as a novelty act. One particularly challenging measure in the score called upon Maestro Artra to conduct with all five of his limbs--yes, his torso had been "upgraded" to accommodate some of the knottier new music - and even here his heat sink barely broke a sweat. On the other hand, during a heated passage in the strings, one of the second violinists abruptly burst into flames. It was a costly loss, but the ensuing cacophonic squeal was, according to the composer, well worth it. Plus, a host of recording media had captured the incident for posterity.

Forty-five minutes of intense acoustic event-making later, Maestro Artra's baton dropped for the final beat. The bulk of the audience huzzahed in appreciation, and the robot batonster acknowledged them with a stiff bow. He motioned for the members of l'orchestre automate to stand, but many of them had already begun to fold up into their instruments, a clever labor-saving design feature of their inventors. Artra waved three of his prehensile appendages vaguely at the spectators, then he breezed off the stage and hastened to the Green Room for his customary post-concert upload. He also had to document an anomaly that occurred at the thirty-nine minute mark of the piece when the second bassoon suddenly played the theme from "My Three Sons." Just to keep a concert interesting, perfection was deliberately factored out of each performance. Intentional mistake bytes were randomly entered into each instrumentalist's functionality grid to appeal to those concertgoers who craved a good old-fashioned train wreck.

The advent of robot musicians began when new music simply got too hard for mere mortals to wrap their hands or lips around. Paleomusicologists generally agree that the first sign of this hypermusic appeared in the harmonic intricacies of "Kumbaya." The first robot crooner showed up when humandom was unable--or, perhaps, unwilling--to get behind that song. Performances by mechanical men and women were not readily welcomed at first. There was something off-putting, even frightening, about the gleaming titanium shell that housed each machine. Colorful feathers and sequins were added to their bodies and, for a while, that helped diminish the impression of them as armor-plated hommes mécaniques who could carry a tune. But when a robot violist prematurely dumped the contents of its nuclear powerplant onto the front row of Cleveland's Severance Hall spectators, non-human musicians were swept back onto the drawing board by way of the proverbial doghouse.

Gradually, fail-safe mechanisms with comprehensive warranties were added to the machines' decision-making circuitry. As the collateral damage accident rate dwindled, the degree of acceptance and even appreciation of robot performers rose correspondingly. Again, they limited their playing to the really hard stuff; there were still plenty of comparatively easy tunes around to keep all the organic musicians busy. And that's why the artificial intelligentsia ultimately welcomed them into the musical performance mainstream.

There was, of course, that one unsavory episode that to this day remains a black mark on the robots' otherwise decent evolutionary record. The Office of Homemaker Security had learned of a particularly egregious case of collateral damage at the premiere of Barkentine's Concerto for Very Sharp Knives and Orchestra. Agents from the Office's Department of Warmongering were dispatched to see if the musicians could be adapted to serve in contemporary warfare--which, they declared, was not all that different from the various internal skirmishes that seemed to grace each concert. Citing national security, the Warmongers conscripted the entire orchestra and sent the machines off to a secret military base for reprogramming. How the base was subsequently leveled by a continuous onslaught of B flats was never satisfactorily explained, and Homemaker Security's official account was, of course, classified under the cloak of national security. In time, the surviving hypermusicians were returned to l'orchestre automate, where they easily slipped back into their roles of ambassadors of difficult music. The fact that they now responded to concert tuning by locking their instruments in on 475 cycles per second didn't seem to matter.

Today's 507th utterly savory episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar features a selection of hypermusic, most of which is well beyond the functionality of most mortal performers. However, we are also privileged to have in our studio a player so skilled in the art of extreme saxophonics that he makes the employment of robot musicians pointless, as opposed to counterpointless. I'm referring, of course, to him who will as a matter of course be presently announced by Kalvos.