Robots, Science Fiction, and SmartMusic

I have one of those little robot maids that dutifully patrols my abode, looking for dirt. It runs around in circles vacuuming, then politely beeps and returns to its charger. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined this possible – today I can sun myself on the patio while it cleans! (More Minnesota weather humor.)

Twenty years ago, I was pretty excited about the possibilities of computers and music. I was writing software in Logo and Basic that made little pitched bleeps and bloops. Not much longer after that, I discovered Vivace.

In case you don’t recall Vivace, it was the origin of SmartMusic. It was a black box into which you put repertoire cartridges. In action it had cables running to mics, speakers, etc. At rest it looked something like this:

We had a little practice room set up in my college music building with a cart chock-full of electronics, including Vivace and a Macintosh computer. I checked out some music and a repertoire cartridge from the library and tried my hand at playing the Hindemith Trumpet Sonata with Vivace providing the accompaniment. It worked well! This was a good thing, because I had dragged my feet and was playing it in a recital two days later.

Do you know how hard it can be to find an accompanist a few days before a recital? It’s tough even without uttering discouraging names like “Hindemith.” You see, the piano part to that piece’s first movement is taxing on a pianist. Painful, I’m told by some. Vivace was merrily playing the same part over and over without complaint — and I wasn’t paying by the hour!

So, when the time came, I wheeled the cart onto the stage, introduced my accompanist with a joke, and zipped through the challenging piece without a second human on stage. It was cutting-edge at the time, and was a lot of fun for me as well as the rest of the trumpet studio.

Back to the present, my accompanist lives inside my computer, and my robot is vacuuming the kitchen. Its science fiction, right up there with personal jet packs. The next thing you know music teachers will be able to critique kids who are practicing in their homes miles away!

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