The Sitarist and his Band of Robots

US-based sitar player and scientist Ajay Kapur is giving humans a break by using “percussionist” robots as accompanists

Written by Suanshu Khurana | Published: June 17, 2012 2:42:18 am

US-based sitar player and scientist Ajay Kapur is giving humans a break by using “percussionist” robots as accompanists

In a recent concert held at the Jepson Centre in Telfair Museums,Savannah,US,a motley bunch of people witnessed a gig that explored a digital renaissance of sorts. While Ajay Kapur,a 32-year-old US-based sitar player of Indian origin sat cross-legged and plucked the strings to allow the notes of Raag Bhairavi to resonate in the auditorium,his accompanying percussionists,Mahadevibot and Tammy,played complicated rhythm patterns. Together,they make up the Karmetic Machine Orchestra,a group that would be like any other except for one factor.

Kapur’s accompanying percussionists are far from human. Mahadevibot is a towering,12-armed robot that plays complex rhythm cycles on 12 Indian instruments such as drums,bells,finger cymbals,wood blocks,and gongs. The machine,with a head of a Goddess (hence,the name Mahadevi-bot) swings its head with the tempo as if imitating a human musician. Tammy isn’t much of a looker but when one plugs him in,the “dude” can play hand-crafted marimba,drone strings,and bells with a high degree of precision.

“The entire concept sounds crazy but organising a performance with robots is not usual. It has worked wonderfully. My next step is to take this to the Broadway and have a series of concerts in India,” says Kapur,who,apart from being a musician,is also Director of Music Technology at the California Institute of the Arts (CalARTS),and lecturer of Sonic Arts at the New Zealand School of Music.

Kapur may sound like a modern version of Frankenstein,obsessed as he is with his unorthodox scientific experiments,although in a positive,musical,way. “For me the robots are characters in a production and not mere machines,” he says.

Kapur’s first steps in creating robots that play music started in the junkyards of Princeton University. Almost a decade ago,when most students of his age were studying the dynamics of science and engineering at the university,Kapur,who had enrolled in engineering and was also learning jazz and Indian classical music on the side — was scouring the electronic junkyards in and around the campus. He was trying to make an electronic tabla to accompany him while he played the sitar.

“I saw one of my professors play music with a coffee mug by placing sensors in it and the dichotomy fascinated me. I decided to work with both as it merged my passions together,” says Kapur,whose doctorate dealt with the extension and preservation of North Indian classical music using multimodal sensor systems and robotics. As for his training in Indian classical music,Kapur came to Mumbai during college to train at the Allah Rakha Institute.

“I have fixed microchips in my sitar and the robot analyses the sound via these microchips to create three-dimensional,interactive sounds. The pressure sensors located in the sitar synchronise the sitar sounds with the robots’ rhythms,” says Kapur,who has been training students at the CalARTS to design and construct these robots. Most robots are made from waste material,and Kapur often places sensors on his head,enabling him to change the beat of music with a mere movement of his head.

Kapur agrees that the concept seems right out of Star Trek and isn’t surprised that purists haven’t been able to digest the idea of machines replacing humans in playing music. But the engineer says that the target is “to evolve and enhance what humans can do”. “I am a digital artiste and try to create a cohesion between various instruments in a way that doesn’t sound mechanical,” says Kapur,who has also worked with legendary sitar player Asis Khan.

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