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UNSW/NICTA Robotic ClarinetMusical instruments that play themselves are far from new. The barrel organ dates back to the 9th century; a 16th century example is still in use today. Mozart and Haydn composed music especially for the Viennese flute-clock, a mechanized organ favored from about 1720. The music box is a relative latecomer; it dates from the very last years of the 18th century.

What is unusual, though, is machinery that plays an existing instrument. One of the rare examples is the Vorsetzer, developed in the early 20th century. It was a piano player, rather than a player piano. It recorded not the sound of the piano, but rather the movements of the keys and pedals when a virtuoso played the instrument. The reproducing apparatus (the Vorsetzer; literally, "sitter-before") was rolled up to a piano, and it reproduced the actions of the pianist. Assuming a playback piano more or less equivalent to the recording instrument, the result was a performance that (in theory at least) sounded as if the virtuoso were playing for you in your own living room.

While one could certainly argue whether any machine can adequately reproduce the touch of a human pianist, a wind or string instrument is yet another matter.

You might say that musician and instrument are closely coupled. The wind player’s body is literally part of the instrument, the mouth and windpipe acting as a resonating cavity. The shape of the mouth and lips interacts with a flute’s lip plate or embouchure hole, a trumpet’s mouthpiece, or the reed of a clarinet, oboe, or bassoon. In a way, playing a wind instrument has a lot in common with singing — it involves the entire performer, body and mind.

Here we have a machine that holds and plays a clarinet.

But it does not sing.

Understand, I’m not dismissing this accomplishment. Any student who has struggled with a clarinet embouchure will tell you that machinery able to coax a more or less stable tone from a clarinet, be it carbon-based or silicon-based, is a long way from trivial. Even with modern computer control, the device demonstrated below is no mean feat.

Remarkable as it may be, it has a long way to go before the results can be called musical. Over 100 years later, this gadget doesn’t approach the Vorsetzer’s ability to preserve the performer’s interpretive skill and musicanship — at least not yet. Although my left brain is impressed with the technology, my right brain thinks it would rather hear a beginning student play Go Tell Aunt Rhody.

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