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Robot to conduct orchestra for the first time in Korea

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : June 27, 2023 - 18:58

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Robot conductor EveR 6 and conductor Soo-Yeoul Choi lead the Korean National Orchestra together at a rehearsal at the National Theater of Korea in Jung-gu, Monday. (NToK) Robot conductor EveR 6 and conductor Soo-Yeoul Choi lead the Korean National Orchestra together at a rehearsal at the National Theater of Korea in Jung-gu, Monday. (NToK)

Can a robot conduct an orchestra? Would a robot replace a human conductor?

A National Theater of Korea rehearsal which was open to the press on Monday aimed to answer the questions amid growing concerns that cutting-edge technology may challenge a job that has been regarded one that only humans can do.

As soon as the host said, “We will now begin,” the human-like robot named EveR 6 raised its hands. When EveR 6 swished its baton, the sound of a gong resonated in the rehearsal room. With every wave of its arms, instruments joined in the rhythmic melody, with the sound becoming grander and grander.

Robot conductor EveR 6 leads the Korean National Orchestra at a rehearsal at the National Theater of Korea in Jung-gu, Monday. (NToK) Robot conductor EveR 6 leads the Korean National Orchestra at a rehearsal at the National Theater of Korea in Jung-gu, Monday. (NToK)

The National Orchestra of Korea, a traditional Korean music orchestra under the National Theater of Korea, is set to perform “Disproof,” or “Absence” in Korean, in association with the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology at Haeoreum Grand Theater in central Seoul on Friday. The performance will feature a robot conductor. While robots have previously attempted to conducting roles several times around the world, this is the first such performance in Korea.

An android robot developed by KITECH a year ago, EveR 6 is about 180 centimeters tall and resembles a human, with flexible joints in its shoulders, elbows and wrists that allow it to execute rapid movements.

However, EverR 6 is not a generative artificial intelligence like ChatGPT, said Lee Dong-wook from KITECH, who was in charge of developing the android during a press conference held after the rehearsal.

“EveR 6 is a robot that executes programmed movements,” said Lee. “The robot is programmed using the ‘motion capture’ technology of digitally recording a person’s baton trajectory through sensor attachments.”

“In the future, we plan to develop the robot through data learning to a stage where a conductor can use it as an auxiliary tool requesting a specific beat.”

From left: Composer Son Il-hoon, conductor Soo-Yeoul Choi, artistic director Yeo Mi-sun and researcher Lee Dong-wook attend a press conference held at the National Theater of Korea in Jung-gu, Monday. (NToK) From left: Composer Son Il-hoon, conductor Soo-Yeoul Choi, artistic director Yeo Mi-sun and researcher Lee Dong-wook attend a press conference held at the National Theater of Korea in Jung-gu, Monday. (NToK)

Another conductor leading the orchestra is Soo-Yeoul Choi, the artistic director of the Busan Philharmonic Orchestra. EveR 6 and Choi will each conduct two pieces and jointly conduct “Sense,” a new composition by Son Il-hoon.

Choi had initially turned down the offer to conduct the Korean traditional orchestra, but was persuaded by the argument that "Sense" was contemporary music, the conductor said.

Son explained the piece does not have musical notation on sheet music. Instead, the piece is written with only instructions on how to play, with 30 cycles as a framework. The conductor and the performers must communicate and create the piece together. The communication with the performers is handled by Choi, while EveR 6 is responsible for keeping the tempo going.

Artistic director Yeo Mi-sun, who is also a concertmaster and ajaeng player, said if they hadn’t taken up this challenge, a song like “Sense” would probably not have been created.

Yeo said that she met EveR 3, the predecessor of EveR 6, in 2009 when the robot took the stage as a pansori singer in the orchestra's performance for children.

“I noticed that considerable advancements have been made since then,” said Yeo.

Robot conductor EveR6 leads the Korean National Orchestra at a rehearsal at the National Theater of Korea in Jung-gu, Monday. (Yonhap) Robot conductor EveR6 leads the Korean National Orchestra at a rehearsal at the National Theater of Korea in Jung-gu, Monday. (Yonhap)

Conductor Choi said he paid attention to the communication between people that was stimulated by EveR 6.

“This friend doesn’t have a mind and pushes forward without negotiations. So when it starts, we have no choice but to follow its beats,” said Choi. “So, ironically, a situation is created in which the performers have to communicate and ‘sense’ each other to follow the precise beats.”

Choi was surprised by EveR 6’s precise movements which were more delicate than he had expected.

“However, EveR 6 has a fatal weakness in that it cannot hear,” said Choi. “Some people think that conducting is just a combination of hand waving and keeping the beat. But the more important process is in rehearsing -- the process of listening to, correcting and persuading the sound of the orchestra.”

“I believe robots cannot replace humans in conducting, but with this challenge, I think there are some situations where we can utilize robots, like in repetitive practice where we must go mechanically.”