‘Musica Automata’ is a fascinating and innovative approach to music composition by Leonardo Barbadoro. He fuses classical instruments and electronic through a robotic orchestra. His description to the album’s focus track ‘Vibi’, gives insight into Leonardo’s meticulous approach to exploring the capabilities of the digitally controlled vibraphone. The use of an exponential delay and the emphasis on the robotic execution of delayed notes, highlight the level of detail and creativity in the composition process.

Leonardo’s perspective on ‘Music Automata’ as a convergence of seemingly incompatible dimensions, electronic and acoustic, adds depth to the project. His desire to explore expressive possibilites while maintaining a sensory connection with the advance is evident. The album’s unpredictable and experimental nature, coupled with the absence of human touch in its performance, contribute to its distinctiveness in the realm of contemporary classical and electronic music. Overall, ‘Musica Automata’ is a groundbreaking and forward thinking project that pushes boundaries of traditional music composition, opening up new possibilities for the intersection of technology and musical expression.

Born and raised in Florence, Italy, you attended the Cherubini Conservatory and became interested in electronic music and composition. How did your conservatory years contribute to the evolution of your music, and what focus on electronic music?

I had already produced electronic music for 4 or 5 years when I started studying at the Conservatory. I studied acoustics, psychoacoustics, computer science, programming, and mathematics. These things haven’t influenced my music directly, but they have made me more aware of many aspects regarding the physics of sound and DSPs. Perhaps the only things that influenced my music the most were listening to and analyzing electroacoustic music—composers such as Xenakis, Parmegiani, Wishart, and Normandeau. I really admire composers, although I have never really composed electroacoustic music of that kind.

‘Musica Automata’ can be described as an innovative album that is way out of the ordinary. You blend classical instruments with electronic components remotely controlled by you. It’s the largest orchestra of robots in existence. How long did it take you to execute this project? And can you describe its background and creative process?

I first heard of Logos (the foundation in Ghent that built these instruments), more than 10 years ago now, when I was in Ghent to play a show and one of the promoters showed me the foundation’s website. I started looking at the photos, the technical diagrams and the descriptions of all these instruments they build and immediately found it to be something truly unique and extremely fascinating. I had long been aware of Yamaha’s MIDI-controlled Disklavier piano and MIDI controlled organs, but I had never seen a full orchestra of digitally controlled acoustic instruments. Many of these are also out of the ordinary instruments, we are not just talking about pianos, organs or drums, but also self-built instruments with various types of woods, metals, bells and even sirens, washing machine motors and digitally controllable propellerheads! I immediately understood the potential of what Godfried and the other people at the Logos foundation were doing, and I decided to contact them. I wrote a first piece there (the first on the album) for my Conservatory thesis project exactly 10 years ago now. Unfortunately, afterwards the foundation faced some problems with funding. This also made it more complex for me to go ahead with the recordings of an entire album, which is why I created a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter back in 2018. The album was composed in those years and recorded in 2019. It was ready for release in 2020 but then a series of delays happened due to issues related to the pandemic. It was a very challenging process, definitely the musical project I’ve spent the most time on so far.

Can you describe your personal opinion about the junction of robots and music?

The most important consideration is that these robots are real acoustic instruments that play in a real space. But with the advantage that, thanks to their many digitally controllable parameters, they can do different things and often go beyond the anatomical limits of human performers. In fact, these remote controls are not limited to note control, but also dynamics, sound envelope, microtonal control and much more. As I was saying, however, these robots are at the same time mechanical acoustic instruments, the electronic part is only for their remote control. The sound generated is acoustic, produced by vibrations in real space, which have certain physical characteristics that make the sonic uniqueness of every single event very lively and interesting to my ears. There is also another interesting aspect, which is the precise control of every detail of the performance. Traditionally, the composer entrusts the score to the musicians, who perform it by translating the signs into actions. In this scenario, an ineliminable gap emerges between the author’s concept and the sound event. This, in the case of Musica Automata, does not happen: I was able to calibrate and draw most tonal details for every single note played. 

From a technical point of view, how do you control all of the elements, and how long does it take to edit them before blending them all together?

I mostly used the Ableton and Max to control the notes, the sound, but also the movement and the lights of some of the robots. It took me quite a bit of time to write the score since in addition to being electronic instruments, they are also acoustic and, above all, mechanical. So it’s a little more complex than controlling a hardware digital synthesizer with a MIDI input port. Mechanical instruments are subject to so many variables. A simple example is how the dynamic intensity scale of a piano is not linear at all when it is driven by solenoids and how this is different in the various frequency ranges. And it gets even more complicated in wind instruments were the air flow influences many parameters at the same time (sound pressure, timbre, pitch etc). There are so many variables also given by the mechanical movements, which is why I always ended up having to completely change what I had previously composed on my laptop to obtain the desired result.

In your point of view, how does ‘Music Automata’ relate to the ongoing transformation of modern music and artificial intelligence?

I think that this project, even though flowing from a digital source, is based on a principle that is diametrically opposed to current research in the AI field. In fact, every note, every single timbre automation and speed change is written by me. I’ve been following a bit the recent developments of AI in the music field, but I haven’t found anything yet that I’m interested in using in my music. Perhaps also due to the hype on this topic and the abuse of the term AI itself. Anyway, I have recently listened to some interesting albums, which were partially produced with the use of AI. I think it will still take some time to understand if it is just a hype that will soon disappoint us with its results or, instead, if with further developments, we will obtain increasingly interesting results.

Before working on this project I decided that the executive possibilities of the robot orchestra would not be the ultimate goal, they are rather its means. In fact, I didn’t aim to showcase the most extraordinary technical possibilities of the instruments; instead, every part has a functional role in the construction of the production, dialoguing with all the other aspects that make up the whole entity.

Leonardo Barbadoro

Since you managed to marry electronics and classical instruments so well, can you describe your unique connection to electronics and classical instruments? What does it take to create such a project, and who are the people or figures that have inspired you through the process?

Well, Godfried-Willem Raes first and foremost, just because without him this project would not have existed.There are many other examples of mechanical music that I had listened to before working on this project. The most well-known is probably Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who I really appreciate but at the same time is very far from what I wanted to compose. I had also listened to Pat Metheny’s album, Felix Machines, Music for Robots by Squarepusher, Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments by Aphex Twin (which came out in 2015 when I was in Ghent recording the first track Musica Automata), some Logos releases and other lesser-known publications.

In my opinion, in some of these cases, not all of them of course, it almost sounded like that the main goal was just to showcase how fast these robots can play. This to me was absolutely boring and self-referential. Before working on this project I decided that the executive possibilities of the robot orchestra would not be the ultimate goal, they are rather its means. In fact, I didn’t aim to showcase the most extraordinary technical possibilities of the instruments; instead, every part has a functional role in the construction of the production, dialoguing with all the other aspects that make up the whole entity.

What does each song represent to you?

I’m not sure I can answer you to this question. For me, music, especially instrumental music, is something totally abstract, it cannot be faithfully represented with words. And to me, this is precisely its strength, music is more profoundly evocative when unencumbered by words. The listener can craft his own story and setting starting from a timbre, a pattern, a track title, or it could be something even more personal and entirely different from what the composer might imagine.

Where would you like to perform ‘Musica Automata’?

I have been thinking about this in the last couple of months. It’s definitely possible to bring the robots into a live setting, but it isn’t easy, the robots are very bulky and heavy to transport. The tracks on the album are composed for dozens of different instruments and actually carrying them all is very complicated and expensive. I am thinking about how to arrange some of these tracks for a smaller ensemble of robots. I would like to bring the robots to some small theaters in Italy, but it will probably be more likely in some festivals in north EU. 



TALENT: Leonardo Barbadoro