After two years of publishing Flanders Today, none of the extraordinary things people do in Flanders surprises us anymore. Until now.
Experimental music, robotic instruments and naked dancing in Ghent
Flanders, I recently discovered, is home to the world’s largest robot orchestra. Godfried- Willem Raes, founder of the Logos Foundation in Ghent, has assembled an array of robotic instruments, which are not only impressive to behold in terms of design and engineering; they also play extraordinary music.
The Logos Foundation is run by a small but dedicated group of composers and artists. They hold weekly concerts in a silver, tetrahedronshaped concert hall – a space designed by Raes for optimal acoustics. Each concert is distinctive – the featured material could be avantgarde sound poetry one night and robotic renditions of tango music the next.
Raes has been dedicated to the promotion and performance of experimental music and sound art for more than 40 years. He and partner, Moniek Darge, were named “cultural ambassadors” to Flanders in 1997 for their pioneering performances and extensive travels as the Logos Duo.
Logos was initially conceived at the Royal Conservatory of Ghent in the late 1960s. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities to compose or even play contemporary music while studying at the conservatory, Raes and his colleagues formed an alternative ensemble.
“At that time in the conservatory, music was only considered worthwhile if it was at least 100 years old,” says Raes. “We started questioning this attitude and – in the revolutionary spirit of the time – decided to form a group of our own that would refuse to play music of the past. We would only do contemporary pieces.”
The ensemble of five started composing their own music and holding concerts. Raes wrote a piece titled “Logos” that required each musician to play in a different metre. The piece was so technically challenging that he had to construct a sort of conducting machine – what would be his first robot – to help coordinate the musicians.
Many considered this performance, as well as the philosophy and actions of the ensemble, scandalous. Ultimately, all five musicians were thrown out of the conservatory, but by then they had attracted a following. The group continued to organise concerts and started inviting artists from other locations and disciplines to collaborate and exchange ideas.
Raes soon realised that in order to truly create new music, new musical tools were required. “Why do we still play historic instruments if we are to play contemporary music?” he asks. “My idea was to create our own instruments.”
And so, Raes became an instrument builder. In Logos’ first 20 years or so, he focused on the promise of the time: electronics. He built instruments such as synthesizers to perform this experimental music.
But eventually, the electronic music performances posed a philosophical problem that Raes couldn’t ignore. In a typical concert setting, there is an intimate connection between the audience and the performer. With a visible performer, the audience is able to perceive the process of music making. The effort it takes a trumpet player to hit the highest note, for instance, or the finesse a percussionist uses in soft dynamic ranges is readily apparent. But with electronic music, there are not often visible gestures that allow spectators to make this connection. The audience is left to stare at an inanimate set of speakers.
This dissociation troubled Raes and caused him to reconsider the use of acoustic instruments. Ultimately, he decided to combine traditional acoustic instruments with his knowledge of electronics and began to construct programmable, musical machines.
Today, Logos is home to 42 such instruments – an entire robot orchestra that includes everything from organs and percussion to string and wind instruments.
While machines can get better with each advance in technology, humans have limits, explains Raes. “The real idea is to go with these machines beyond what is humanly possible, to extend the possibilities,” he says. Raes’ robotic piano, for instance, can play much faster than a human. And it can hit many more than 10 keys at one time, each at a different dynamic level.
The robot orchestra is a composer’s dream – it can be programmed to play just about anything imaginable. Its repertoire is extensive because the foundation’s members are all active composers, and they invite guest artists to write for the orchestra, too. There is even a composer’s guide for the robots available on the Logos website.
The robots are typically controlled through a computer interface, but they are also capable of perceiving their environment and responding to it. They are dubbed the Man and Machine (M&M) Orchestra because they can respond to human interactions – such as viola playing.
The robots can also respond to movement, like dancing. Through extensive research into gesture, using both radar and sonar technology, Raes has created an “invisible” instrument that allows dancers to control the M&M Orchestra through the movements of their bodies. There’s just one catch: the dancers have to be naked. Though unorthodox for a concert setting, the nudity is essential, according to Raes, because clothing obscures the tracking system’s ability to detect subtle movements.
This counter-culture mentality translates to Raes’ robot designs. He is anti-copyright and doesn’t patent anything. All of his designs are open source and are published on the Logos website.
This unparalleled research and prolific instrument building have gained him much recognition in the field of experimental music technology. This past year, electronic music artist Aphex Twin contacted Raes to see if he could buy one of the robots. Raes refused but agreed to design and build a robot specifically for the musician. After seven months of work, the percussive “Hit Anything Robot” (<HAT>) made its debut at a recent Logos concert.
Though this project may bring the foundation popular recognition, not to mention valuable funds, Raes says he’s finished with building instruments for others. For one thing, he’s busy: he’s currently working on harmonium, bassoon, and cello robots. But, more importantly, he wants to keep his new progeny with their kin. That way, more composers have the opportunity to explore the bounds of this one of a kind, ever-expanding orchestra.
Raes’ hope is that Logos and the robots will continue to serve as catalysts for the development of avant-garde techniques for innovation in music for years to come. “We are expanding expressive possibilities for composers and new music,” he says, “which is what new music is all about."