From exploring faraway planets to performing life-or-death surgeries, robots can do most anything these days. But as long as they have fuseboxes for hearts, their efforts in the arts will be mere imitation.
Regardless, creators these days often find themselves on a knife-edge, grappling with their own limitations as music technology advances at full tilt. Flying in a breakneck competitive landscape fraught with uncertainty, they are canaries in a coal mine.
Trying to keep up with the latest machines as others adopt them like a second coat of skin, they often find themselves burnt out and bone-weary, prisoners of their own ambition. The only way forward is to use tech with the intention of enhancing human ingenuity—not governing it.
Just ask Eprom, whose new “Syntheism Robotics” concept is what happens when soul meets system. If his coexistence with machines is wrong, it’s tough to imagine being right.
A daring beatsmith revered in electronic music circles for his contrarian approach to sound design, the renowned producer has always been considered to be in a league of his own. But last month’s release of Syntheism, Eprom’s first solo album in a decade, saw him tear hell for leather into a new creative frontier.
Dispirited by the bleak tenor of today’s conversations about futurism, he conceptualized an alternate universe inspired by the fall of the ancient Akkadian Empire of Mesopotamia. In the Syntheism world, however, the snakebitten community blossoms into a thriving metropolis where technological utopianism is canon.
His story paints a picture of a deeply passionate, zealous labor of love that extends far beyond the music. Eprom tells us he even went as far as studying Akkadian cuneiform, the earliest known writing system.
It’s all led to his groundbreaking “Syntheism Robotics” concert at Denver’s Mission Ballroom on July 29th. Fans attending the one-night-only headlining show will see Eprom perform in tandem with motion-control robots manufactured by Motorized Precision, a leading robotics company with a portfolio including Disney, Netflix and Star Wars producer Lucasfilm.
“It’s always super exciting to work with the robots, and we’re really pushing the limits of what is possible technically,” Eprom tells EDM.com.
In the same way a conductor guides an orchestra, Eprom will use live electronic music to guide robots, directing their immense computational power and accuracy towards pushing the boundaries of his artistry.
We caught up with him to discuss the ambitious venture and how he brought it to life.
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EDM.com: You’ve said Syntheism is the biggest project of your life. Why now? What led you to embark on a project of this magnitude?
Eprom: Syntheism, to me, is the elevation or deification of that which we as humans create. The project is an attempt to fuse all of my interests in art: musical, visual and written. It just happens to have occurred all at once, where I felt inspired to write this album and ready to explore new avenues in the live show with robotics, and to create a more coherent visual language that is all in service of a singular, world-building narrative.
Why now? Well, the world seems to be at a particular moment of acceleration toward an unknown future. That future can be pretty scary, and you see that reflected in modern narratives around the fear of technology, cyberpunk science fiction, dystopianism, et cetera.
I wanted to present something of an alternative to this pessimistic view of reality, to imagine some kind of a utopian concept that informs both the music and the visuals. So, Jackson D. Green and I developed this alternative reality in which the Akkadian empire of antiquity had not succumbed to the forces that destroyed them, and had instead grown to be the dominant cultural hegemony, not just in the Near East but throughout the world.
And the album itself, while not directly tied into that narrative, is meant to evoke similar themes. It started as a search for typographic reference points to develop visuals for the live show, and it kind of snowballed into something much bigger, with more of a backstory and associated writings around this alternate timeline. So it’s not a concept album per se, rather the concept was applied retroactively to tie everything together for the art and the show.
But when we came up with the concept, we definitely were thinking about how to reflect the tone of the album visually, and specifically, I had an idea in which the first track “A New Home” would be the soundtrack to a series of logo drops for these fictional organizations. I conceived it that way from the beginning and then in creating a backstory for these organizations, we ended up going much farther into the world-building exercise than we had anticipated.
EDM.com: As AI continues to infiltrate the music industry, the relationship between producers and tech has never been more of a flashpoint. Can you tell us about your decision to explore technological utopianism despite the rampantly dystopian tenor of today’s conversations about the future?
Eprom: I think that like any tool, AI has the potential to be used for harm or for good. The technology may seem impenetrable but the way we apply it is up to us. That scares people because they see AI as taking away jobs from artists, and I do share those concerns to some degree.
This album and its secondary materials aren’t really addressing AI specifically, rather wondering, “What if we could petition a set of ancient gods with a handheld device like a phone or what if we could transform deserts to fertile land using rapidly evolving, highly adaptable plant ecosystems?” Just imagining the possibilities of fusing ancient traditions with futuristic technology, and trying to think through those questions visually and sonically rather than strictly technically.
So we imagined a set of corporate and cultural organizations within this world. We wanted to present this alternative and also re-contextualize the aesthetics of corporate “art” (i.e. marketing materials). I’m using scare quotes there because I don’t really want to make a judgment about what qualifies as art. I think artistic decisions can still be made in the pursuit of capital, but I wanted to explore those particular aesthetics from a more utopian lens—in other words, what if traditional marketing and advertising aesthetics had a higher calling, or a holy dimension, or even just an element of the fantastical or of weirdness?
So this investigation of Akkadian culture began as a thought exercise regarding language specifically, because we both had an interest in cuneiform, which is the earliest form of writing that we know of. We both shared an aesthetic appreciation for the wedge-like shapes of those early inscriptions—from a purely visual perspective we thought that was interesting, and that it was fertile ground for typographic exploration. We then extrapolated from Akkadian cuneiform and went through the exercise of translating various modern concepts, like “memory,” “vault,” “encryption,” et cetera, into their Akkadian analogs, as best as we could. From there we extrapolated further by creating short phrases in cuneiform and combining letters, a bit more loosely than what might be acceptable to a scholar of ancient languages.
We allowed ourselves to use our imaginations in this sort of secondary exploration and asked, “What would writing look like, what would stone carving look like, what might a saint be in this world? How would Akkadian traditions manifest in (their) medieval times?” So, the album cover represents an artifact from a purported medieval period, corresponding to our modern day 1000-1500 CE. And another touchpoint or aesthetic reference was a real historical figure, the actual saint, musical composer, language inventor, scholar, arguably early feminist and polymath, Hildegard of Bingen, to whom we referred to create the figure you see on the stele on the album cover. To be clear, the figure on the cover is not a direct depiction of Hildegard, but she was one of numerous references, and we wanted to create something that also synthesized that Christian figure with depictions of the pantheon of gods and goddesses of Mesopotamia. The artifact on the cover is visibly damaged, and an attempt to reconstruct it has begun using modern or future technology—as you can see in the corner of the stele, it’s made of this secondary plastic material.
EDM.com: The “Syntheism Robotics” show says a lot about how humans and machines can live in harmony. But many believe technology will become so advanced that it will sadly displace humans instead of enhancing them. What would your advice be to a music producer who feels pressure to introduce new tech into their career?
Eprom: It’s a valid concern, for sure. I share those concerns. However, I think that human art will always have a place in the world. AI image synthesis and sound synthesis are increasing in sophistication very rapidly, and there’s a lot of venture capital floating around right now. That space is overcrowded and I think that anyone who wants to differentiate themselves is going to need to produce something that has actual human aesthetic value, and a lot of people are coming from the tech space with very little concept of what that means.
It’s clear to me that people who are attempting to synthesize a song from top-to-bottom, using some algorithm that interprets language to create a generic composition, are very poorly qualified to make aesthetic judgments about whether the linguistic query has been rendered satisfactorily. Furthermore, music is capable of expressing things that language fails to. What is the linguistic query that can produce the transcendent, hair-raising ecstasy of a Mozart, or the existential terror of a Ligeti, or even the sweaty, muscular pulse of a trance drop? These are things that—even for our best writers—language fails to capture, and so this approach to music as a transactional, input-to-output process is fundamentally misunderstanding how music works.
Music has a priori essential value that cannot be expressed by even the most well-structured query. There is no prosaic query good enough to evoke the aforementioned feelings, and certainly no algorithm good enough to fill in the blanks left out by the imprecision and inadequacy of language to express those musical sensations. So, top-to-bottom, AI-generated sound synthesis has a very long way to go before it can approach human-generated music in terms of emotional content, if indeed it ever can. But tools for smaller tasks, like drum sample generation, stem extraction, et cetera are pretty valuable, and I’ve experimented with those in my workflow.
Music is fundamentally about connecting humans to each other, so if AI is going to be involved, it always has to be in service of that goal. So in terms of concrete advice, it would be to learn all the tools you can now, because technological advancement is inevitable—but maintain your humanity, and remember why we make music. It’s not to be sonic wallpaper!
EDM.com: Let’s talk about the technical aspects a bit. Assuming Motorized Precision had never activated their tech in such a manner, was it tough to map the Colossus Robots in tandem with your set? What was that process?
Eprom: We connected with Motorized Precision over a year and a half ago, and floated the idea of putting a show like this together. So the seed was planted a long time ago. Those guys are amazing at what they do, and have helped by modifying their code to accommodate what we wanted to do, adding new features to their software and advising on technical aspects of what’s possible with the robots. It’s always super exciting to work with the robots, and we’re really pushing the limits of what is possible technically.
All of the actual position and rotation programming of the robots is done by me, using custom software written by Motorized Precision. Their software is quite advanced and makes it easy for me to drop in a song, and create a series of keyframes for robot positions along with the music, and can do other cool stuff like point the robot at a specific point in space that can be animated independently of the robot’s own position, which leads to some really cool organic kind of effects.
What tech platform or program was most crucial to delivering your vision?
Eprom: Well, the whole show runs on Ableton Live, and uses Max4Live to send control data from Live, over the network, to the robot control computers. So Ableton Live is the backbone of the entire show. MP Studio is the software that the robot computers are running, and that’s where all the robot moves are stored. Each move corresponds to a song in our set.
Cinema 4D is my go-to 3D creation environment, and I would say 95% of the visuals in the show were created in Cinema 4D using Octane Render. Additionally, I do some modeling in Plasticity, which is a CAD program, and I have other artists contributing work who used Houdini and zBrush. Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are used extensively for 2D work and material assets like textures, et cetera. I do all of my compositing in After Effects, and some material painting in Substance Painter.
EDM.com: Can you point to any specific moments in the “Syntheism Robotics” show that truly transport your fans to the alternate reality of which you’ve conceptualized?
Eprom: You’ll have to come to the show and experience it for yourself! We worked super hard to ensure that every moment contributes to that world in some small way. Sometimes the references to this world are oblique, or extremely subtle, or open to interpretation. It’s not didactic, and it’s more about slowly drawing you into a world through visual and textual suggestions rather than creating a strictly linear narrative.
EDM.com: How scalable is this concept? The Denver show is said to be one night only, but is it out of the realm of possibility to see it expand for a large-scale festival stage?
Eprom: We’d love to do this show at more venues if possible, but for now, Denver is the only one on the books and we may not do another one there for a very long time, if at all. So now’s your chance to see and hear it.
EDM.com: Is there more to be unravelled from the arcane universe of Syntheism? What exactly is next for the Eprom project?
Eprom: I think there is still fertile ground in this universe to be explored. I’m making new music all the time, and in fact, a lot of it is in the “Syntheism Robotics” show. I think we’ll be exploring many more microcosms of this constructed world in the near future.