WORCESTER — Play it again, PAM.
PAM could play that favorite tune again exactly as you like it, but there is also the possibility that PAM and fellow instruments might add their own touch and perform it a different way of their choosing each time, if you so wish.
PAM is an acronym for Poly-tangent Automatic Multi-Monochord, one of the robotic instruments created by Scott Barton, assistant professor of music at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, that will taking part in a concert of music and dance made by a human-robot ensemble at 3 p.m. Oct. 27 in Mechanics Hall, 321 Main St.
"Sound Fusion — Robots and Live Performers Creating Music Together" is a collaboration among Mechanics Hall, the WPI Music Perception and Robotics Lab, which Barton directs, and Worcester Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
There will be an interactive robotic demonstration/"petting zoo" for families (especially children) to see the robots up close at 2 p.m. Oct. 27.
Performers in the 3 p.m. concert include Will Sherwood, principal organist at Mechanics Hall; veteran rock guitarist Cliff Goodwin; vocalist Michael Lynch; dancer Mitzi Eppley; organist Gavin Klein; Patrick Chatham, cello; Kerry Muenchow, violin; Nate Tucker, percussion; Anthony Topper, robot keyboard; and Perucssive Aeophone, Cyther (human-playable robotic zither played by Barton), Modular Percussion/CADI (Configurable Automatic Drumming Instrument), and PAM.
"I think we're breaking ground," said producer, musician, composer and educator Tom Bellino, project consultant at Mechanics Hall.
There is a common denominator.
"Throughout the whole process, music is the whole point of this," Barton said. To put it another way, "It's going to be really fun," said Kathleen M. Gagne, executive director of Mechanics Hall.
The event will be a first in several respects, and showcases Mechanics Hall's E. & G.G. Hook Organ, a musical marvel when it was dedicated in 1864 (with a total of 3,504 metal and wood pipes), and cutting-edge 2019 robotic musical instruments.
The organ "was the most complex machine at that time. The next most complex was a clock," said Sherwood. Barton has been building his musical robots over the course of the last 12 years. "I'm a musician who develops technology as opposed to an engineer who does music on the side," he said.
The Oct. 27 "Sound Fusion" program includes classical works by Bach, Brahms, Debussy and Saint-Saens, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," The Who's "Eminence Front," and Barton's 2019 composition "Tempo Mecho." The concert will conclude with an "Improvisation" sequence involving all of the participants, human and robotic.
It will be the first time that Goodwin, who toured with the Joe Cocker Band, has played electric guitar live on stage with such a group. But as "a live guitarist" who enjoys the spontaneity of live performance, he is looking forward to the experience. "This is actually a thrill. It's truly a unique art form to me," Goodwin said.
During the concert, human instrumentalists and the musical robots will play the lead for a given piece.
In a recent interview in Barton's office/lab at Alden Hall, WPI, with Bellino, Goodwin, Sherwood and PAM, et al, Barton said you can compose or arrange works in a predetermined way for robots "and they will play them." Also, however, "one of the ideas is that these machines can play autonomously," he said. Earlier this year Barton had an installation at the Worcester PopUp where people could interact with the robots based on one of his compositions, "Machinic Tides." The piece would never be repeated exactly the same way, he said.
"There's some music theoretic built in, but everything is spontaneously generated," Barton said. The robots are programed so that they're "'listening,' and the machine chooses what to do. They make decisions in a quantitative way — 'I think this note is particularly important because of the frequency with which it is being heard.' It can enhance the human performance, improvise, or ignore it. One of the goals is to show how flexible these tools are and they're flexible for us as composers to do something interesting," Barton said.
"Isn't that one of the essences of art?" said Goodwin. "How can I do something interesting?"
"The way different performers put a different interpretation on a piece — this is another flavor," Barton said. "For me as a composer, the entire foray is born out of wanting to find new ways to utilize my voice."
PAM won't be announcing its own bluesy solo composition Oct. 27 written during a rainy afternoon at Alden labs when the electricity was running low.
"There are humans behind robots," Barton said. "Robots didn't make themselves."
Still, "There's an experience of being in the same room with them," Barton said. "I think there's a point where there's a transformation from machine into instrument."
Sherwood noted that at rehearsals, "we're seeing how we all can contribute to the fabric of the sound."
The program was chosen with familiar pieces performed first such as Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue. "I don't want people to be scared because it's robots and computers," Sherwood said. "It really is music. It's up to the audience what they find compelling."
The concluding improvisation will begin with Barton at the Cyther and Eppley the dancer. "That will grow to where we establish an idea, then all of the other musical voices, so we're playing together," Barton said.
Like playing live with human instrumentalists, "there's that danger," Goodwin said. "That's the thrill of it. It's intriguing because it's freeing at the same time."
Having a dancer "adds another element — motion," Barton said. "One thing that robots introduce with their physicality is motion. When you introduce a dancer you have a very interesting interaction."
"Sound Fusion" is the initial happening of Mechanics Hall's recently announced "Many Voices Project," which Gagne said is especially focused on engaging youth with creative programing so "that they can experience this amazing space."
Mechanics Hall was built in 1857 under the auspices of the Worcester County Mechanics Association whose members were leading the way in the industrial revolution in Worcester's manufacturing heyday and branching out into other areas. "Mechanics Hall has been the birthplace of many innovations," Sherwood said.
Association members were also involved in founding WPI in 1865. So the relationship between Mechanics Hall and WPI is very longstanding.
"Sound Fusion" is "a totally collaborative idea," Gagne said. Gagne, Barton and Sherwood were all in agreement that they would like to see it continue.
We likely won't have heard the last of PAM.
"We always have been about the latest innovation," Gagne said.
Contact Richard Duckett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TGRDuckett.