Classical robotics

A humanoid robot has stepped into the venerable halls of classical music, and not just to the orchestra stalls where the public is supposed to sit and listen, but onto the sacrosanct conductor’s podium. On two occasions -- at a public rehearsal on March 9, and at the children’s concert on March 13 -- the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Qrio, a humanoid robot developed by Sony a few years ago. On both occasions Qrio conducted Ludwig van Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

No breathing, no sweat

When asked by the press before his (?) first performance how he felt, Qrio reportedly answered “I’m nervous.” The performance went well, though. Nobody expected it to go otherwise, either. The robot was programmed to wield the conductor’s baton in perfect time throughout Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and Qrio followed its program perfectly in every detail.

When asked how it felt to be conducted by a robot, one of the members of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra said that it felt a little unusual at first. “I’m used to looking at the conductor’s breathing, taking my cue from that, and Qrio doesn’t breathe. But when I focused on the baton instead, then everything went smoothly.”

Future uncertain

The event was of course just a publicity stunt for Sony and maybe in some sense for the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra as well. Because the role of a conductor of a symphony orchestra is not just keeping time, but to render the composer’s work according to his or her artistic feeling and understanding.

Eri Klas, an internationally renowned Estonian orchestra conductor, who is presently conducting the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra, doesn’t think that the robot has much of a future as a conductor. “A machine is incapable of being emotional, but in every rendering of a musical composition the emotional nuances are different. This is the result of the uniquely human emotional interaction between the conductor and the members of the orchestra.”

Perfection vs. emotion

Conductor Eri Klas, who has in the past conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra himself, is on the other hand hardly surprised that a Japanese orchestra was chosen to for the premiere performance of the robot conductor Qrio. “In Europe and in America the emotional side of music has always been the most important thing. In Japan the perfection of the performance has been stressed instead, leaving emotionality somewhat in the background.”


Estonian daily Postimees, March 13, 2004

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