Androids stimulate our imagination, last week they also occupied Berlin’s musical life. R.U.R., a robot opera given at the Theater in Delphi, stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots and is actually a drama by Czech writer Karel Čapek, published in 1920, which has since undergone many adaptations. For the androids manufactured by the RUR company, Čapek’s brother contributed the name “Robot”, which appears here for the first time, after a Czech word meaning “slave worker”. The robots are used industrially worldwide, but soon rebel and destroy humanity. Only one remains, Alquist, a Company employee whom the robots hope will reproduce the lost formula of their existence. But Alquist can’t help, he was just a builder. In the end, two robots will become humanoid by themselves – they will have children.

The new adaptation by the ensemble gamut inc has little to do with Čapek’s play, except that in both cases androids are a metaphor for a contemporary fear. When Čapek wrote, the civil war that began the history of the Soviet Union was still in progress. He obviously had the proletarian revolution in mind.

Wonderfully dissonant

gamut inc is about an individual who wonders where life comes from and where it is going. The piece begins right away with Alquist being – more in Nietzsche’s sense – the last man surrounded by just two robots, a soprano and a countertenor, who are constantly developing their ability to move. Something like a church choir is projected onto the back wall of the theater stage. Like the soloists, he sings wonderfully dissonant a cappella. Alquist, however, only speaks. During the ballet of the two robots handling “7 automated disks”, he usually sits behind a desk and reasoned. For example, language is “a tool for you, for us the shell around being. Because we are afraid to be.”

God, he thinks, has been overcome by his creatures, humans, and in the same way humans are overcome by robots. The robots would basically execute the vengeance of God. Here someone is stuck between his pre-history and post-history and does not know why he exists at all. He can’t do anything with his presence either: Can you feel me, hear me? he asks the robot Helena, who only continues to repeat her beautiful musical algorithm. They can’t get in touch with each other.

One day before the premiere of the piece, the Ultrasound Festival for New Music in Berlin opened last Wednesday with a concert by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (DSO) conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer. The program included Machines in echo for two pianos and orchestra (2015) by Luca Francesconi. This work showed that it is still possible to communicate with one another today. The composer uses the pianos as “machines” by repeating a manageable tonal material over and over again, in variations that are recognizable as such. They do that in the same way as the Helena from gamut inc. But they have someone who listens to them. The prompting of the pianos is still recognizable in the orchestra’s reaction. And then it turns out that the pianos themselves can react to the reaction. Although they don’t leave their “algorithm” there either, they have opened it up to the outside world, which means that they are no longer the same.

The philosopher Yuval Harari claims that almost all humans are quasi-algorithmized, which is why replacing humanity with “artificially intelligent” machines would not change much. Only a few people are not monotonous, but creative. But this view refutes itself: if such groups of people existed and they communicated with each other, each would adapt the characteristics of the other.

You have to be able to open yourself up, but you can. On Sunday at the final ultrasonic concert (again with the DSO, this time under Johannes Kalitzke) a composition by Enno Poppe underlined this ability. Fat for orchestra (2018/19) is a microtonal structure in which up to 40 voices pile up. The piece begins in a listener-friendly manner, reminiscent of Arnold Schoenberg’s middle movement Five Orchestral Pieces (1909) who recalls the title Chord colors wore. Even in the microtonal expansion it sounds like inhaling and exhaling. But Poppe expands this self-relationship of a subject to immense spaces, also to loud contrasts, which of course remain audible in the subject space. That is probably also the reason for the title: the subject wants to get out of himself, but his lonely tugging only leads to obesity. And then the opening succeeds in the end, with suddenly very quiet tones! There must have been a muse.

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Note: As usual, the title and the line below are not from the author. I myself would not ask myself the question “whether communication between man and machine can succeed”, but it is probably not untypical that the article is read in this way.

R.U.R. by gamut inc can be seen in Cologne at the beginning of February. the Ultrasonic-You can see concerts at ultraschallberlin.de listen

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