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Music review: KarmetiK Machine Orchestra at REDCAT

April 13, 2012 |  3:20 pm

KarmetiK SamsaraWe build robots to do things we don’t want to do, say vacuum the rug or drop bombs. Business and government love robots because machines master the universe. Machines always win.

Young artists, however, increasingly turn to machines simply because the machines are cool, and because young artists all have MacBooks, which make the artists feel like masters of the universe. The KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, a CalArts invention on display at REDCAT Thursday night, is very cool, very MacBookish and very much interested in mastering the universe. We used to call that cultural imperialism, but that was before a techno-beat became a universal force for dulling cultural distinctions.

The show, “Samsara” (which repeats Friday), however, was meant to be high-mindedly and ambitiously interdisciplinary. Fine guest artists were contributors. Ancient Indian tradition — dance, music and storytelling — bumped into high, medium-high and low technology.

The core of KarmetiK is its wonderful robotic musical instruments, inspired by famed kinetic sculptor and composer Trimpin (one of Thursday’s special guests). These are elaborate mishmashes of mechanized instruments that can do incredible things, especially rhythmically. The point, I think, is to humanize the machines — some have silly anthropomorphic names, such as GanapatiBot and BreakBot — by finding ways that humans can musically interact with them through their laptops.

The framework of “Samara” (the term for the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation in Indian religions) is of five myths of reincarnation. All involved anthropomorphic animals — mice, elephants, monkeys, quail and a calm lion. These inspired gung-ho traditional and Bollywood Indian-style dance, as well as trite animation (whenever I see animated butterflies, I think Hallmark) as unfortunate attention stealers from the musical bots.

Along with the bots were orthodox instruments, but for a bass, most were Indian and amplified. Ajay Kapur, KarmetiK’s mastermind and the music director of “Samsara,” played an ESitar. Four musicians operated laptops exclusively, but all seven players had them, and the illuminated Apple logo became, for all the projections and lighting effects of the show, a dominant visual display of product placement.

Even so, “Samsara” was no exercise in “Think Different.” Rather, it was one in conformity. The tendency was to find common ground in a groove, to find beats that everyone could dance to. The machines were sometimes better at it than the humans, especially in a sequence of musicians clapping and bots bopping. In the end, the music resembled that of a Buddha Bar lounge.

There was, however, machine sweetness in a segment about quarrelsome quails, in which tall windmill-like machines fluttered seductively. And then there was the transfixing appearance of dancer and noted ethnographer Tomie Hahn as a lion strapped with motion-sensing sound equipment by composer Curtis Bahn, the two other remarkable guest artists.

Hahn’s role was to investigate, through calm inspection, the myth of idle gossip. With her serene presence and her sounds all made from her motion, woman and machine finally fused into one. Ultimately, Hahn was the one individual in an environment of mechanized art, her music flowed from her limbs as her breath came from her lungs. Machines enhanced life.

Then back to the Buddha Bar. “Samsara” ended, as samsara says all things must, by returning to the beginning, to repeat our same mistakes until enlightenment breaks the cycle. But what happens if the machines — along with their corporate masters — always win?


This robot orchestra is ready to jam

Music review: Cage, Stockhausen and Bettison under Green Umbrella

Opera plugs in to the high-tech

-- Mark Swed

Photo: KarmetiK Machine Orchestra's "Samsara" at REDCAT Thursday night. Credit: Stefano Paltera/Los Angeles Times.