Patrick Flanagan’s not in your typical band. Rather than long haired hippies, his drum circle is staffed by solenoids, actuators, and a couple of controllers from the Nintendo Wii. The system, known as Jazari Music, lets Flanagan control a suite of djembe drums, bongos, and other percussion instruments by pressing buttons and tilting the angle of the Wiimotes. He can even create complex rhythms and loop them on the fly – sort of like a good DJ. More impressively, Flanagan has created a series of algorithms that allow him to play one drum and have another automatically generate a response. This is the improvisational version of machine made music and it’s really sweet to watch in action. We’ve got a video of a full length performance by Flanagan and Jazari below. Gotta love the cowbell.
We’ve seen some really amazing AI programs that create computer generated music by analyzing the work of famous composers. Jazari is relatively similar. Flanagan created Factor Oracle back in 2008, a program that could analyze musical statistics from modern music and generate new work. No one seemed particularly interested in it. Which is why he started constructing actual robots to play the instruments the following year. Watching machines bang on the drums got Flanagan a lot more attention (Pop Sci, Gizmodo, and others have been all over these videos in the past week) but I think it’s the original Factor Oracle and AI work that sets Jazari apart. Anybody can make a robot that plays an instrument, but getting it to listen to you and then improvise in response? That’s phenomenal. And it takes AI music from Classical straight into Jazz.
The following video has Flanagan explaining how the Jazari system is controlled from the ground up . You should pay special attention to his description of how he can get different instruments to improvise off his solos on another drum (4:05).
Jazari isn’t the only robot band we’ve seen but it is named after inventor of the first robot band ever made. Al-Jazari was a 12th century Arabic scholar who was said to have created the first mechanical musicians. If that sort of historical reference seems a little academic, you shouldn’t be surprised. Flanagan has advanced degress in music composition and is a former Fullbright scholar. It’s the combination of school experience and real world intuition that sets Flanagan’s work apart. Statistical analysis and enthusiastic drumming are fine on their own. Put them together and they make beautiful robot music.
[image and video credits: Jazari Music]