An android opera: Japan's Shibuya plots new era of robot music

PARIS, FRANCE, Marianne Barriaux- Life and death, surveillance and privacy, humans and robots: Keiichiro Shibuya likes to unsettle and push boundaries in music.
The Japanese composer made a stir in 2012 when he created the first ever virtual opera starring a computer-generated image of a girl, and he is now preparing to go a step further with a show performed by singing androids made by leading roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro.

"I have a project that I will put on later with robots that have human form," said the 41-year-old, in Paris Monday for a separate solo concert called "Perfect Privacy" that sees him marry traditional piano playing with computer-generated music and sounds.
"There will be only robots on stage, no human beings," he told AFP of his future project planned for 2016, acknowledging that he likes to unsettle and stir up intense emotions with high-tech creations.
- Hunted by paparazzi -
With his trademark long fringe covering part of his face, Shibuya is fast becoming a household name in Japan, where his electronic music, piano and futuristic creations have placed him firmly in the limelight.
He is also dating well-known actress Miho Nakayama, and the paparazzi hunt for proof of their relationship was an inspiration for "Perfect Privacy", Monday's concert that will see scores of cameras installed in the Theatre du Chatelet to project his every move on stage onto a giant screen.
The concert in the French capital comes almost a year after he put on his sell-out virtual opera "The End", which tackles life and death, at the same theatre.
That show starred Hatsune Miku, a virtual young girl whose image is projected on stage and who "sings" through a vocal synthesizer -- a so-called "Vocaloid".
Miku has become a star in Japan, performing in concerts around the country and she even appeared on David Letterman's Late Show earlier this month, leaving the smiling host slightly bemused.
- Robot newsreader -
Shibuya's next opera will be even more futuristic with several androids designed by Ishiguro singing on stage, and the music entirely computer-generated.
Robots are used in Japan to perform a variety of tasks such as cooking noodles, helping patients undergo physiotherapy and even helping in the clean-up after the 2011 nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.
And Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University, is the master of robotic science, known for creations such as his recent news-reading android.
He even has a humanoid version of himself which he sends overseas to give lectures.
But beyond his country's obvious propensity for robotic breakthroughs, Shibuya says he is trying to understand the very nature of art via his high-tech creations.
"When a human being plays something, when he creates art, others are impressed or moved," he said.
"Why? Because they feel that this human being has made an effort, has performed perfectly as a human being? Or because the art itself is beautiful? We don't really know."
Putting on an opera without any human beings involved is one way of finding out," says Shibuya, adding he aims to put on "something beautiful but created by something other than a human being."
Shibuya started playing the piano when he was six, and has never stopped despite branching off into electronic music with his ATAK music label.
But his experiments with high-technology are what really make him stand out.
"If others appreciate something that was created by something other than a human being, it's a new type of pleasure," he says.

Thursday, October 23rd 2014
Marianne Barriaux

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