Move Over, Hal — New Sci-Fi Star Takes The Stage

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The idea of artificial intelligence has long gripped us human beings. There was Hal in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film "2001: A Space Odyssey," the Cylons in "Battlestar Galactica" and last year Watson dominated his flesh and blood opponents on "Jeopardy!"

Next week audiences in Cambridge will get to meet a new A.I. character known as The Steam Brain. He (or it?) joins an all-human cast in "Futurity," a new sci-fi musical about to premiere at the American Repertory Theater’s Club Oberon.

"Futurity" was created by a modern Brooklyn rock band. It's set during the Civil War. The two human main characters are Julian Munro, a fictional Union soldier, and Ada Lovelace, the real-life daughter of poet Lord Byron, who also was a brilliant mathematician.

I dropped by a recent rehearsal to see the Steam Brain for myself and meet its makers.

In "Futurity," the Steam Brain serves as a concept and a main character, but on stage it’s actually a crazy-looking, Franken-drum set.

Eric Farber, percussionist for the indie band The Lisps, constructed it by cobbling together vintage industrial tools and spare parts. The 31-year-old musician sat down beneath a canopy of metal objects for a demonstration.

“This is an excerpt of my drum part from the song 'Made Out of Wood,' " he explained. “[That] is the song where Julian Munro, the Civil War solider who has devised the idea of building a mechanized intelligence that can end the war, and Ada Lovelace, his partner in crime, are working out the details of what the machine will be made of and how to build a machine that could accomplish the task.”

Conjuring that machine’s sound became Farber’s task about four years ago. That’s when his band mate Cesar Alvarez began percolating ideas for what would eventually become this sci-fi musical.

“Cesar started writing some songs [and] he wanted some sounds that I just didn’t have,” Farber recalled. “He would say, ‘You know, I got this idea for this song but I kind of want a beat that’s like...' ”

Then Farber replicated the sounds Alvarez desired with his mouth.

They were indeed unconventional.

Farber couldn't make any of those sounds with his drum set, but he wanted to, so he decided to make it happen.

“I started going to junk shops, flea markets, the side of the road, alleyways, dumpsters," Farber said. "Basically wherever I could find something that I thought I could weave into a song.”

Farber’s quest was fruitful. He dug up a lot of old, potentially noisy items, including some big, old-school metal film reels.

“I like to spin them,” he said while flicking his wrist, and we watched and listened to metal scraping against metal.

I asked about the six long, bright red, wavy things hanging in a bunch, like wind chimes. “They’re teeth from a crop thrasher,” Farber said. He got them from a friend in the Midwest.

“It makes a beautiful sound when they hit each other, but they also sound great with knitting needles,” Farber said.

He showed me huge, rusty fly wheels from textile factories. And a beat up tractor-seat-turned-instrument with help from an old meat grinder handle. Also a cherry stoner fused with tambourine mechanisms.

As Farber's band mate Alvarez watched the machine grow he said its abilities as well as its aesthetic helped the creative team develop the Steam Brain as a character. The anachronistic name also helped Alvarez — a songwriter — for a variety of reasons.

“Not only does it evoke the ideas of the time period using the concept of steam, but it rhymes with so many great things, which works really well for this piece,” Alvarez said, then he sang a few lyrics. “Steam Brain is the chance for the dance of the land lovin’ friends of the man-made. It’s a first name on a deck that you need for the breed and cost of your main frame.”

Alvarez, also The Lisps' lead singer, continued the list.

“Cut vein, first name, all these different things,” Alvarez summarized, adding, “and of course train — which is the preeminent and defining technology of the Civil War. In a way it’s what made the Civil War such a brutal war because it enabled the mass transport of both humanity and of the implements of war.”

Science fiction is always about where we are right now... rather than really being about the future.

Cesar Alvarez, The Lisps

The Steam Brain is an implement of peace in the play — an intelligent technology invented to create peace during a time of war and then solve all of humanity’s problems. Kind of like smartphones, the Internet — or Hal — right?

“Science fiction is always about where we are right now,” Alvarez reminded me. “It’s always about that, rather than really being about the future. And the Steam Brain totally is in that tradition.”

The enduring tension between man and machine drives the action on the stage, according to Futurity playwright Molly Rice.

“I definitely think this love-hate relationship with this character is very present," Rice said. "And in fact it’s the core of the conflict.”

Looking back, Rice marvels at Farber’s “baroque drum set,” as she called it.

“I mean, it’s really important that it’s both a musical instrument, a mechanical device and an invention," Rice said. "But also, in some way, a weapon. A weapon for peace, you know?”

And it's an infectious weapon, too.

As the story unfolds, Civil War soldiers end up playing the Steam Brain, or parts of it that have been spread throughout the room. Farber loves to watch the cast banging and cranking life into his creation.

“There’s some inherent functionality that remains in decaying objects of technology, in old industrial pieces that are sitting in backyards and sitting in old warehouses that were once the height of fashion," Farber said. "And these amazing technological objects are now just obsolete and rusty. But there’s functionality left in them that can be harnessed and re-purposed somehow.”

Farber seems to have the re-purposing part figured out, and he calls “Futurity” an evolving experiment. It started as a concept album for The Lisps, but over time they’ve made countless changes to the script, the songs, even the Steam Brain itself.

“A lot of these things break,” Farber said as he played a sound loop on one of his found artifacts. “You hit something with a drumstick enough times it’s gonna die, so you gotta find new stuff.”

Then he stopped suddenly, exclaiming with a laugh, “Wow, this might’ve just broken!”

He paused, assessed the damage, looked up at me and said, “Yup. See, some things do break.”

Hopefully that won’t happen next week when Eric Farber, the Steam Brain and the rest of the cast take the stage.

“Futurity,” a musical by The Lisps, premieres at the American Repertory Theater’s Club Oberon next Friday, March 16 and runs through April 15.

This segment aired on March 8, 2012.


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