Eric Singer's business is building robotic musical instruments, but not those spooky animatronics that mock-play guitar while blinking once in a while. Singer's orchestrions — the 1800s term for a set of automated musical instruments — are made up of actual instruments mechanically equipped to perform a composition automatically. So what exactly does that mean?
"The instruments can play anything," says Singer, founder of the Pittsburgh-based SingerBots. "They play whatever's composed for them." So, a musician composes a song on basic production software, but instead of playing the notes back, the program activates the physical playing actions on the orchestrion. Simple enough.
In April, Singer completed the largest work of his career, an orchestrion for the Lido nightclub in Paris. Comprising roughly 45 instruments, including percussion, piano and a seriously robust xylophone section, the Lido Orchestrion will perform compositions every night as the opening band for the cabaret show over the next 10 years. In action, it looks like a haunted band room.
Singer has been building these robotic instruments since 2000, when he founded the League of Electronic Musical Robots (LEMUR), a collective dedicated to building automated instruments. His first was the GuitarBot in 2002, a set of four strings with notched devices that zip up and down the individual strings like little slot cars. (On YouTube, search for "EmergencyBot TV Theme" for a good introduction.)
In 2009, Singer returned to Pittsburgh — he attended Carnegie Mellon as an undergrad— and founded SingerBots, a company fully dedicated to building robotic music instruments. In his 15-year career, he's built hundreds of instruments for a variety of clients, including jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, They Might Be Giants and the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art.
For Singer, musicality and infallibility are the two priorities for a great orchestrion. They need to sound good and they can't make mistakes. You might think that robotic infallibility would make the performance lifeless, but Singer scoffs at that idea.
"I've never walked in and found them having their own jam session," says Singer. "There's always musicians involved in this process. I just see it as another extension of the possible ways to make music."
Visit www.singerbots.com for more information.