John Adams and YuMi the robot conductor

They warned us about the machines. In case you didn’t have enough to worry about in the news lately, there’s been an increasing amount of talk in recent months about how robots will eventually steal your job. They may look innocuous, but those self-checkout machines at your local grocery store are actually harbingers of doom.


The field in which I work—conducting orchestras—may very well be the quintessential niche market, so I’ve never felt extraordinarily threatened by robotics. Maybe I should reconsider. In Italy last week, a robot named YuMi was tasked with leading an orchestra, along with the famous Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, through several operatic hits. Oh dear. As it turns out, YuMi wasn’t the first. In 2008, a creepy little robot called Asimo (made by Honda) led the Detroit Symphony through a less-than-stirring rendition of The Impossible Dream. Apparently, if you can drive a Civic, conducting an orchestra may not be out of your reach.


After careful assessment (video of both of the aforementioned iconic performances is available on YouTube), I have decided that Honda will probably have more success making cars than they will manufacturing conductors.


Let’s agree then that machines do a pretty poor job of impersonating musicians. But what about musicians impersonating machines? In 1986, the great American composer John Adams wrote Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a short fanfare for large orchestra. About the title, the composer said: “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?” (I have a hunch Mr. Adams wasn’t referring to a Honda.)


Short Ride in a Fast Machine has become one of John Adams’s most frequently played works, and for good reason. It’s four minutes of action-packed orchestral writing of the highest order. It sounds like nothing else written before it or since. The rhythm grabs you in the very first bar and won’t let go; it gives the listener (and the orchestra!) that white-knuckle feeling of holding on for dear life. It’s a virtuoso display of orchestration and a dazzling example of how a great brass section can blow your hair back.


There may be some of you who may have blanched a little at seeing that this music was written in the 1980’s. Yes, Short Ride in a Fast Machine is unabashed “modern” music (even though it’s already over thirty years old), but have courage! The very humanness of this piece, being played by a group of very human musicians, makes it every bit as compelling as the music of Beethoven.


The machines are coming. The experts are saying robots will be New York Times bestselling authors by 2049 and heart surgeons by 2053. No word yet on when they will be making conductors obsolete. Resistance may well be futile, but you can do your little part: boycott the self-checkouts and support your local symphony orchestra.