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Music is being played live, but there is no one on stage. Drums are being played but nobody is sitting at the set. Instead there are two human-like robots and two swivelling speakers. The drums are pounded by mechanical arms holding drumsticks.

The band is a robotic band called MMI — short for Musical Mechanical Instruments — and they are performing daily for the duration of the annual Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.

MMI is the project of KIMURA and Tomoaki Yanagisawa. Its four members include Auto Automata G, which plays the electric guitar, Auto Automata B, which plays the bass guitar, Semi Auto Drum D, which plays the drums, and Mohri-san, which is in charge of the vocals. While KIMURA is the mechanical engineer for the project, Yanagisawa is in charge of designing the lighting and interaction.

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The robots, though distinctly mechanical, are like humans, not completely perfect. Ironically, the most non-human like aspect of the band, the speakers, or Mohri-san, has the most human like name.

The project came from a series of mechanical music projects that KIMURA has developed. Formerly an assistant for Maywa Denki, a Japanese art music duo, KIMURA said “I want to play [music] with robot. So I make many machine musical instruments, but [those] are more big and mechanical and high technology.”

“I think that people make the mechanical machine, so people want machines to work more correctly than human beings. But this machine is just the guitar and drums, we want to make a musical mechanical machine… more low-spec, kind of limited,” Yanagisawa told HKFP.

“These are not-so-good players,” added KIMURA. “But it makes, sometimes, good sound.” As with a human band, each performance depends on the different dynamics between each player. “Every time we practice, machine with human… Sometimes good rhythm comes,” he added.

KIMURA and Tomoaki Yanagisawa
Left to right: KIMURA and Tomoaki Yanagisawa. Photo: Chantal Yuen, HKFP.

Although imperfect, MMI is already complete, said KIMURA. “I think the members are enough,” he said. However, he stated that he would like to make changes to the system.

“Sometimes they are not working correctly,” so they make mistakes, said Yanagisawa, “but that’s the point – that the machine kind of has a personality and then, only that kind of music can play in that machine.” And KIMURA agrees that this is the idea of the project.

The robots will be playing alone for the duration of the event. KIMURA hopes they do not malfunction after he returns to Japan.

The festival is being held almost half a year earlier this year to coincide with the International Symposium on Electronic Art 2016, also held in Hong Kong this year. Its theme is “Be Water II,” featuring the fluidity of data.

Akousmaflore (2007-). Photo: Chantal Yuen, HKFP.

The robotic band is part of the main exhibition and performed the opening act for the festival last Friday. KIMURA also led a workshop with the robots on Saturday.

The festival will last until this Sunday. Other installations include RadianceScape (2016) from local art group XCEED, which turns radiation data into a graphical laser show, and Akousmaflore (2007-) by Grégory Lasserre & Anaïs met den Ancxt, and which features interactive musical plants.

HKFP is a media sponsor of the 2016 Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.

Chantal Yuen is a Hong Kong journalist interested in issues dealing with religion and immigration. She majored in German and minored in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University.