Resurrecting the world's first electronic sequencer through AI

Barbican Centre

Yuri Suzuki and Pentagram have re-imagined the Electronium - Raymond Scott’s instantaneous performance-composition machine

A new AI melody 
Japanese designer Yuri Suzuki has reimagined a sixty-year-old electronic sequencer machine as a physical piece of music software that uses artificial intelligence to generate melodies.

Raymond Scott's Electronium and orchestra

Raymond Scott was an American bandleader, pianist, engineer and inventor who is widely renowned as an early pioneer in electronic music and instruments.

During his lifetime he served as director of Motown’s Electronic Music Research and Development from 1971-1977, and his late 1930’s jazz melodies have been widely heard through Warner Bros cartoons. Scott was the first person to build an electronic sequencer and is widely seen as a forefather of electronic and ambient music - the Electronium.

Conceived in 1959, the Electronium was made up of three switchboards mounted on a wooden cabinet.

It was conceived as an instantaneous performance-composition machine, able to intelligently generate music by responding to sequenced melodic phrases. After spending 11 years and close to $1 million in development from Motown, Scott was unable to continue work on the machine after suffering a severe stroke in 1987.

Using pre-programmed algorithms, it would turn a snippet of any given melody into a full composition while enabling users to add embellishments over the top.

2019: Yuri Suzuki gives Raymond Scott's Electronium electronic sequencer an AI makeover

Yuri Suzuki, who has a lifetime interest in the inventions, music and unorthodox methods of Scott, sought to recreate the Electronium as software, and bring to life its counterpoint function through the use of modern AI.

The research and development was challenging for the team, as they had to decipher the inner workings of the Electronium. Always wary that contemporaries could steal his work, Scott was extremely secretive and deliberately avoided writing detailed documentation on his inventions. Various parts and cabling were removed from the machine for future projects, leaving only a series of recordings behind.

Luckily, the team was able to acquire recently un-earthed and unpublished schematics, notes and signal flows to help them understand the methods behind Scott’s creation.

After weeks of research, they were able to piece together a general picture of how this complex machine worked and sought out programmers who could implement the software and crucially, the AI function.

Yuri Suzuki explains, "Because of the way it was built originally, users have no way to tell where they are in a sequence, so we’ve added an extra explanation layer to help players visualise the connections between the different parts of the machine."

To program the AI part of the Electronium, the team collaborated with Counterpoint - a creative studio specialising in artificial intelligence and generative systems. Counterpoint used Google Magenta’s AI software, utilising deep learning code and neural networks trained on Bach chorales to understand relationships between contrapuntal voices, and adapt intelligently to new situations. As a result of its Baroque influence, the results are often extremely idiosyncratic as the code tries to work around a more ‘pop’ sensibility offered in the major scale of the Electronium.

A unique blending of human and machine creativity, the Electronium has huge potential for those wanting to sit down and engage seriously with it as a compositional tool.

Though the machine was conceptualised in 1959, it still poses questions about authenticity, the nature of creativity, and man/machine relationship that are increasingly vital in the present day.

"We hope that bringing the Electronium to life contributes to the current conversation about the qualities of AI, and how it is becoming increasingly common to implement intelligent technology in all aspects of our lives."
Yuri Suzuki

Credits: Story

About Yuri Suzuki
Yuri Suzuki is a sound artist, designer and electronic musician. He explores the realms of
sound through exquisitely designed pieces that examine the relationship between people and sound questioning how both music and sound effect the mind. Yuri Suzuki has exhibited his installations and sound artworks around the world.

AI: More Than Human is a major exhibition exploring creative and scientific developments in AI, demonstrating its potential to revolutionise our lives. The exhibition takes place at the Barbican Centre, London from 16 May—26 Aug 2019.

Part of Life Rewired, our 2019 season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.