Computer Counterpoint

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The premise of a new website for Absolut is spectacular: creative machines. Log on and you can choose either Absolut Quartet or the Absolut Choir. Elect Quartet, the work of MIT-affiliated scholars Jeff Lieberman and Dan Paluska, to play a few notes on a virtual keyboard, which are then riffed on by a mechanical four-piece band, located on New York's Lower East Side. The machines interpret your main phrase in a unique way, and the composition arrives minutes later in your inbox. Partner installation Absolut Choir features 10 robotic voices, set up to sing your text input in their eerie tones. Choir, created by Swedish foursome Teenage Engineering, is easier to grasp harmonically, but it doesn't match the Quartet's mechanical spectacle. Both projects were commissioned by agency Great Works to answer a simple on-brand question: In an Absolut world, could machines be creative?

The Quartet rig consists of three on-site components, the user provides the fourth element by playing along online. Once your signals are sent, they're interpreted by a set of 35 chromatically tuned wine glasses rubbed by chemically-treated suede, ethnic percussion instruments and the main soundmaker, a marimba activated by rubber balls flung in five-foot-high arcs by a series of catapults. Paluska and Lieberman say the marimba was by far the most complicated part, from figuring out the balls' timing, accuracy and durability demands of continuous use while the machine is alive at 186 Orchard Street in New York until April 30th.

Creating real music could take a few tries—at first the Quartet machine might just render the keys you plonked a tiny bit more pleasurable to the ear while you gape awestruck at the mechanics. But Paluska says such early floundering is part of the idea. "We wanted to make sure we had a deep experience with the expert and the novice," the 33-year-old roboticist says. "The really important part is the physical nature, this feeling that you're connected to something real." His partner Lieberman, explains that even though the musical composition can happen entirely on a software level, the live instrumentation is integral to the experience. "We wanted to give people a startling, almost miraculous physical form to hear this music," he says. "We want people to first get captivated by what they see."
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