5/14/08

Oh My Gods! Frak!

By now, I’m sure that we’re all aware of the Detroit Symphony’s latest shtick: Asimo, Honda’s robot human helper, conducted the Symphony on Tuesday. Well, actually, it conducted one paltry Broadway tune, not a full-length symphony. Anyway, the AP press picked up the story as did Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free-Press and a handful of others. It even made its way across the pond.

Asimo the robot: OK, but does he seduce the sopranos?

Richard Morrison of the Times Online (“News Site of the Year” -The 2008 Newspaper Awards) apparently has some reservations. Perhaps we ought to test the humanity (read competence) of our conductors by their ability to womanize. Sweet. I like where this is going.

Before hailing Asimo, Honda’s robot conductor, as the Toscanini of our age, I think we would need its technique and interpretative powers to be put through a sterner test than is provided by that cheesy Sixties ballad, The Impossible Dream.

Right. How many sopranos can he shag? That’s the litmus test.

What I find fascinating is how the role of the conductor is reinterpreted by each age.

(with sarcasm) Wow! Why don’t you give us an absurd reduction of the roles of conductors through each age. That would be fascinating.

In the Victorian era the conductor was the epitome of the Romantic artist as demigod — treated with awe and reverence. After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union attempted to abolish conductors altogether, instructing orchestras to rely on collective decision-making and socialist comradeship to get them through performances (an experiment that lasted for about three weeks of cacophonic anarchy).

In the age of the great dictators, conductors such as Otto Klemperer and George Szell were given licence to terrorise orchestras with vicious sarcasm and impossible demands. Whereas in the chilled-out Sixties, the leading conductors — as epitomised by Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn — were laid-back, groovy dudes, as comfortable on a chat show as on the podium.

(more sarcasm) Wow! That was fascinating. You managed to isolate a few conductors who somehow represented all the rest, whittle their eccentricities down to generalizations about the age and, simultaneously, move forward in time to bring us to the precipice of the actual topic: can Asimo get laid?

Fine work, so far. Now, how about today? You know, the conductors. What about them?

And our generation? Well, we have reinvented the conductor as a robot.

We did? I seem to remember an article, not too long ago, that mentioned that one robot conducted one piece that only lasted only about three minutes.

To say that the entire generation is defined by Asimo, the one time conductor, is the lamest thing I’ve heard of since that thing about God being mad at us, which is why he unleashed Katrina on New Orleans.

How apt for an age that is increasingly replacing human-to-human communication with impersonal technological interfaces.

Again, Asimo conducted a symphony orchestra once. That’s it. Once. It was a novelty, an amusement. In fact, it was a fucking advertisement! Honda donated one million dollars to Detroit Symphony Orchestra education program(me)s (talk about economic irony) in exchange for a performance lead by Asimo (see Mark Stryker above). It would seem that the human-to-human element is, well, greedily opportunistic. Asimo: just a conductor (a programmed conductor at that); not an apt expression of musical, nor social, progress.

But is Asimo the finished article?

No. But then again, he was never intended to conduct a symphony; he’s supposed to be able to help the elderly with mundane tasks. This Detroit Symphony business was a one time deal, worth one million dollars. An advertiss-ment.

Does he have an ego the size of Belgium?

No. It’s a robot.

Does his agent demand that he gets a fee equivalent to the rest of the orchestra put together?

No. It’s a robot and, in this case, a prop, a plug, an advertisement.

And how many young sopranos has he seduced?

Ugh. None, because it’s a robot. So?

Until we know the answer to these vital artistic questions, we can’t really call him a true maestro.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure what this article is about. Or, I have ideas, but none that jump out as correct, because I have a number of questions.

I mean, why does Richard initially represent Asimo as a thing (it), then later assign it a gender (he)? I thought he was poking fun at Asimo’s lack of humanity, lack of human-to-human communication. Does that mean Richard is really poking fun at human conductors’ fallibilities? Why is this necessary? Is it a problem? I thought we’ve been living and dealing with egos for...since the beginning of time.

If I may attempt some conjecture...

1. If the point of the article is to deride conductors or their stereotypes, through Asimo, then whoops. Richard said that it’s human to be fallible, which is a logical step backward. It doesn’t work.

2. If we can’t cheer Asimo in the same way as a real-life conductor, because Asimo is not human, then this is perhaps a strangely (unintentionally) veiled advocation of misogyny.

3. Shucks. Just insert Battlestar Galactica “toaster” reference here.

Anyway, if the purpose of this weirdness was to get a rouse out of its audience, or bring up the ol’ man vs. machine debate, or waste some space, then it worked. But I have trouble believing that this is an idle, opinion-less piece. How about you?
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[Edit Empiricus] I have rightly been corrected: The $1 million dollar gift to the DSO was not directly linked to Asimo's appearance. Instead, it was truly philanthropic, thus rendering that thread...uh, excessive and perhaps unfair. Cheers! And a new color for edits!
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6 comments:

Gustav said...

I think flippant is the word you're looking for, Empiricus, not derisive. I read this more of a tongue-in-cheek jab at conductors (of which I'd bet he knows a few). It wasn't a serious event, more of a publicity stunt, and that's how he covered -- not very seriously.

Although, I think you're right that it doesn't seem to have a point. It's not quite funny enough, informative, or sly enough to be clear what it is Morrison is really saying here.

Empiricus said...

Thanks for flippant, Gustav. That's more like it. Though, it could be taken as derisive, but that's not the point.

I just don't know why a newspaper would publish stuff without a purpose/thesis/opinion. It seems like a waste of space.

Murderface said...

ASIMO was on the right han' side,
John Henry was on the left,
Says before I let ASIMO beat me down,
I'll conduct myself to death,
I'll conduct myself to death.

Oh de first vi'lin said to John Henry,
I bleeve this showtune's sinkin'in.
John Henry said to de first vi'lin

Oh my!

Tain't nothin' but my baton suckin' wind,
Tain't nothin' but my baton suckin' wind.

With apologies to folkloric Big Men everywhere.

Cobtir: Norse/Lutheran god/saint of corn/justice.

Empiricus said...

Uh, Murderface? Enslave the robot race?

iamyz: the Floridian Pop-Eye

Murderface said...

I don't get it.

I can, however tell you with certainty that the femoral artery becomes the popliteal artery when it passes distal to the adductor hiatus.

(I have an anatomy final tomorrow.)

VRSZDH: Probably some very ineffective mnemonic for a cranial nerve.

Sator Arepo said...

Oh! The adductor hiatus is my favorite hiatus of all!

Wait. What?

oqhyguoz: a totally inferior hiatus.