A performer, musicologist, and robotics engineer, Moritz Simon Geist aka Sonic Robots is a unique figure treading the lines between electronic music and electronics.
Drawing from his background as both a classical musician and a robotics engineer, with an expertise in prototyping technologies and 3D-Printing, Geist’s projects range from robotic music performances to robotic sound installations with his immersive MR-808 Interactive a perfect example, allowing audience members to program the drum robot and listen to the emerging of the sound in realtime. His current installations, the kinetic sculpture Tripods Oneand the mini robot run Soft Manipulator, continue this track of audience experimentation through rhythm, mechanics, and object.
During the weekend of 17 – 20 May, Geist will bring several of his installations, as well as a tease of his forthcoming debut album, to North Carolina’s seminal celebration of synth and hardware, Moogfest 2018, where he will also perform and hold workshops within the field of robotic music engineering. He will also go in conversation with frequent collaborators Mouse on Mars. With much on the plate for Moogfest, I caught up with Moritz Simon Geist to discuss a little bit of everything from robotics, background, and artistic approach to Mouse on Mars and, of course, Moogfest.
“robots can give the body back to electronic music.”
Can you give us a brief introduction to your artistic trajectory as a musician? At what point along the line did you start integrating robotics into your work?
My musical background is more on the classical side. I have an education in piano and clarinet from when I was young until around 22. At the same time, I also started working with old DOS Tracker software so I that’s how I got into electronic music.
At some point, it bored me because I had these classical instruments, where you use your hands and also this computer, where you don’t when making music. I have a strong engineering soul. I studied electronic engineering and worked as an engineer for a couple of years. At some point during my studies I decided to combine these two things. I started off with some small experiments, more in the Noise scene. I had a lot of experiments laying around, and some small shows going on, but I needed to find some kind of closure for it all that I would be satisfied with. I came up with the idea of building a big 808. It was my first installation and was quite huge in size. It was a big success and found itself featured all over the internet. That was the time where I decided the whole business and engineering world wasn’t good for me. It didn’t fit who I was so I decided to focus exclusively on my artistic life. This was 7 years ago now.
There are not so many people in the world building music robots but there is a big demand for it. I do research, give talks, and have an academic background on this topic, and when I do my research I find a lot of these projects are on a more experimentation base. They are not really advanced. I want to take it to another level. I am a musician at heart so I had to make something that sounded really just how I wanted. I wanted to design the sound. Now, I’m touring with my latest installation. It’s a more futuristic instrument.
You mentioned your 808 project. Was that a University project?
No. To be frank, I did my studies but I tried to keep it all away from my artistic self. I’d always been a self employed artist and this was just one work I did. I’m sure I put some of my learning from University inside it but it was by no means a University Project. Actually, I tried to make it one but the University wasn’t open to it.
I remember having interesting conversations during my last Master’s thesis, mostly around issues of presentation and accessibility. I feel like a lot of University’s need to realize we’re no longer operating in the 1600’s…but, conversations for another day!
What about your approach to creation and robotics. The 808 was a large scale project and you do have to travel and build them. Do you take practicality in consideration when designing your projects?
In terms of practicality, an artist shouldn’t think of it in the first place. You have artistic values to think about. I think it is important to start your work without any restrictions because, if you don’t you get mad. You already have so much to do.
What about aesthetics?
This is important. I was a bit naive when I started with robots because I (simply) thought it was a nice thing to try. Over the years I realized it was such a broad field. I’m always wondering why so few people are doing this. You can incorporate so many different aspects into it including how it appears. When you have an orchestra or a rock band, there is always this connection between the visual aspect and the musical. It’s just there because the sound is created physically. You can see how the hands are moving and so on. With electronic music this isn’t true. The physical aspect is missing because everything is created in the computer. I realized that music robots can give the body back to electronic music. It becomes a sound that can be seen in the physical world, so aesthetics becomes very important.
I do see that thinking in overly practical terms could create a hole one could dive into and find no end. Aesthetics are different though. You can play with aesthetics inside the artistic space. Practicality is, on the other hand, the antithesis of artistry.
You’ve mentioned how there are not many operating in the field of music robotics. Can you give us a handful of names you see as peers?
Internationally, it’s not big but there is a music robot scene. It started around the 1990s. One name that had me start was Felix Thorn. There is also Compressorhead, a band from Berlin focused more on rock music. They made these exoskeleton robots that look human and play instruments.
There’s also a product called dadamachines. This is a kit you can buy and make the entrance to this field a little easier. I really like this approach as its enabled a lot of young artists to get into it. There are many more but these are the most important for me.
Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Mouse on Mars? You will go in conversation with them at Moogfest. How did this conversation come about?
I’ve been friends with Mouse on Mars for about 5 years. It started in Berlin for a show with Tyondai Braxton and Stargaze Collective. Peter Kirn connected us. We presented a neo-classical piece of music there. I was familiar with them for many years though. Over the time span of their career they were always searching for an extension of artistic expression. They were the first in Germany to combine electronics, guitars, and pop electronica and were in search of someone who could play with the physicality of sound and make it appear very large, which is what I do.
Three years ago I developed a robotics system for them, which I will also bring to Moogfest. With it, you can make sound with everything around you. It is a clip on universal robotic system. I built three versions and one got into the hands of Mouse on Mars. Over time we developed the system and now it works quite well. They are using it on their new album and performances, which incorporate 3D sound. This 3D soundsystem will also be at Moogfest. When you combine this with robots it blows your mind.
…and what will you personally be presenting at Moogfest?
I am very happy they invited me! I will come with my new installation Tripods One. I am also releasing my first album at the end of the year, so this will be a testing field for the new tracks.
Artistically, I have several talks, performances, and installations scheduled. I will also bring Soft Manipulator, which enables the audience to play around with everyday items to make polyrhythmic sound from anything. I will also have a workshop where I’ll engage the basis of robot sound to hopefully engage some more people to join this wonderful field.
Featured Image: David Campesino