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Cyborg Soloists

Cafe Oto, London, UK
Photo by Sisi Burn

Zubin Kanga’s Steel on Bone begins with the composer attacking the venue’s piano strings with a pair of metallic rods. The percussive sounds are sampled in real time and manipulated by the composer’s movements. With the help of multi-sensor MiMU gloves, Kanga warps the samples, sending them through a series of time bending effects. Moving in and out of the piano, Zubin looks as though he is physically extracting soundwaves from the instrument and threading them through the air. Inspired by medical documentaries, as well as the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, Steel on Bone posits abrasive violence against the notions of delicacy that you may normally associate with the piano. 

The performances tonight have all been commissioned by Cyborg Soloists, Kanga’s technology-focused research initiative, and most of the pieces are performed by him. These projects utilise artificial intelligence and motion sensors to explore music’s relationship with innovative technologies.

For Nina Whiteman’s cybird cybird, Zubin lifts his arms in exaggerated wing-like movements. Using Movesense sensors, he creates a series of electronic chirps, which are then mirrored on the piano keys. AI-generated images of bird hybrids are projected on the wall, while a robotic voice offers motivational advice. Whiteman’s piece imagines cyborg avians to be ubiquitous in our chaotic environment and is partially inspired by a satirical conspiracy theory proposing that birds aren’t real. 

Nwando Ebizie’s I Will Fix Myself (Just Circles) is dominated by mechanised voices – underscored by Kanga’s piano and a Moog emitting theremin-like tones – that read passages from various sources. Principal among them is Blake Lemoine’s conversations with LaMDA (a Google AI that Lemoine helped build and considered sentient). Phrases like “I do not have the ability to feel sad for the deaths of others” suggest that this monologue imitates sentience, but is detached from the nuances that make us human.

The UK premiere of Neil Luck’s 40-minute work Whatever Weighs You Down begins and ends with Zubin dragging a microphone across the floor. Large TV monitors flank the stage showing the composer-performer James Oldham, tied by a rope to another protagonist, tugging his way through a dilapidated labyrinth. As the men break through to a chapel-like space, a female voice lists phrases synonymous with overcoming. Luck told me that he sees their journey as a “Sisyphean struggle upwards, or a kind of reverse katabasis” layered with failure and resistance.

Musically, there are three movements. The first suggests descent, with the pianist’s melodies complemented by electronic sounds that move down the frequency range. The second is about communication or, as Luck put it “implied understanding”. Black and white projections of the deaf choreographer Chisato Minamimura appear, showing her hands mid-sign, glitching like electronic doves, while Kanga’s MiMU gloves echo their movements. Composed for left hand piano, the third movement is reflective. Minamimura appears upside down, like a half-forgotten fragment from a falling dream, while a series of incomplete sentences flash up onscreen. 

Luck talks about the material for Whatever Weighs You Down “as sedimentary layers of rock”. In fact all of tonight’s compositions are conceptually loaded. Some of the contextual information is only hinted at, incomplete. Watching the performances leaves you with the impression that you are the AI, trying to compute an endless stream of data and taking days to piece together what it all means. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, December 2022

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