Moritz Simon Geist has a fascinating background, both in classical music and robotic engineering. His projects range from electronic music performances to robotic sound installations. His robotic installations and performances have so far been shown at numerous European festivals and exhibitions including Ars Electronica 2014, Club Transmediale 2013, Mapping Festival [CH]. He has also collaborated with performers such as Mouse on Mars and Tyondai Braxton. He holds talks on the progression of robotics and society. In 2015, he was awarded the Artist-In-Residence-Stipend for the Free State of Saxony. Moritz Simon Geist lives and works in Dresden, Germany, where I visited him in his Neustadt flat during the ICAS Festival in April 2015.
How long have you been living in Dresden?
Moritz Simon Geist: I’ve been living here for fifteen years now with breaks, but I’m originally from Göttingen.
Why did you come here?
MSG: Partly for studies. We decided to move here with a group of people. So this is how it started in 2001.
Interesting. Most people would probably go to Berlin, which is only two hours away.
MSG: The whole Eastern part of Germany has a special kind of attraction. In both Leipzig and Dresden you can find these deserted areas and old buildings. It’s also present in Berlin, but it’s much more common to go there.
So already back in the day you had the need to move somewhere like this?
MSG: The real East (laughs). Yes, definitely. I had been to Lithuania several times before, so I knew the former Eastern bloc a little. It had a really big attraction to us.
MSG: Because it was something different than the place where I grew up. In Western Germany everything is already established. I studied at the Technical University here in Dresden, an electronic engineering course. My background is more musical though because I learned a lot of instruments when I was young. I started with piano when I was five. Then I continued with clarinet at the age of eight and carried on playing instruments. I started making electronic music in 1997 when I got my first computer. Back then there was no software like Ableton, but DOS-based programmes called “Trackers”. My first steps with electronic music were made with these Tracker style of programmes.
If you were not a musician, what would be your job now?
MSG: Actually I did work as an engineer when I didn’t have enough money to live off my music. I can do that too, but it’s boring work at the office, so I usually try to avoid it.
So now you’re a full time musician?
MSG: Yes, for two years now, and that’s perfect.
Where does your interest in engineering come from? Lot of musicians are programmers and coders, but I don’t know many musicians who are engineers.
MSG: One part of my family consists of teachers and musicians, and the other is more technical, so I think it’s embedded in the genes. My grandmother gave me a present, a little box with electronic circuits in it, when I was seven. In my family, nobody knew what to do with it, so I just made my first experiments with it alone in my parent’s cellar. I started to take radios apart, just to see how it works, the usual stuff you do as a child when you’re curious. It’s a lot about playing around in the sense that you don’t have something concrete that you aim for. It’s action without a specific goal. There’s no ‘I have to record a CD’ or ‘I have to get this paper to be published in a big magazine’. This playful aspect is important for a lot of artists, me included, and should be also for other people.
With Sonic Robots, there’s this innate playfulness too.
MSG: Oh yes. When I started, I thought this was just a strange hobby, but now I can live off it.
The specific interest in robotics comes from your engineering background?
MSG: I have a few 3D printers at home and I use them a lot. I even have a small business selling 3D prints. I love it when I come home from a bar and all the robots are still working. I’m relaxed and the robots are earning money for me, actually. It’s a superb idea of how robots can work for humans. When I started I didn’t think that I would do something with robots or with mechanics, it was super natural. I learned a lot from books, the internet wasn’t around much back then. In the mid 90s when we had the first internet at the university, we were going there with my friends trying to find out about circuits online. My first robot was a machine which – I had a rock band back then – could automatically record cassettes. It would take one tape and put it into the record player and record us, and then take it out and put in a new one. I didn’t have to do it myself, so it was more about being lazy.
My parents have this hoover robot, it’s quite hilarious, like a family pet.
MSG: They are crazy. I visited my grandma last week and she said that she never goes out and always watches how it works, because it’s so cool.
Can you talk about the Sonic Robots crew?
MSG: It’s a project which started three or four years ago. The membership is fluid, it’s only me who’s a stable member. My brother is part of it too alongside several other people from Dresden. We are building these robots together and I’m trying to get more people involved because it’s much more fun as a group. We had one big installation three years ago, MR 808, a big drum robot, which looked like an oversized toy, a remake of the electronic drum computer from the 80s, the TR 808. It was the first robot we built and it was quite successful, we immediately got to a lot of festivals. The MR 808 took three years to build, because I didn’t really know how it worked and I had to find out the techniques for the casing for example. It was a lot about research. At the end of last year we finished the Glitch Robot, which is more about detailed sound. The whole project is about robotic music, where we try to build instruments for electronic music which do sound in a mechanical way.
MSG: Normally, as an electronic or dance music producer, you would have electronic gear that creates sound in an electronic way. We try to bring this sound creation from the digital realm back to the physical again. We are taking robots to do the work. Eg. there’s a drum which is hit by a motor, a string hit by an electro-magnet. All these motors, electro-magnets are combined and in the end they form a sound which is similar to electronic sounds and able to create the structure of electronic music. I think it’s an interesting way to go. There are not so many people doing it and I think there’s a lot of work that can be done in this field. It’s also a field which is a little complicated because on one hand you have to do all the technical stuff, which can get boring and the technical view of the world can be also dangerous. But on the other, you have the art, musical side and to combine these two realms is huge work and sometimes it’s really difficult to do it properly.
Is there an element of demystification in some of your installations?
MSG: When you have a mechanical machine in the real world which does something, you can see it. It’s like a gramophone. You can see how the sound comes from the needle through the cylinder. If you have a person which plays a laptop, you don’t know what is actually happening. There’s also an element of mystification. The Glitch Robot, for instance, which tries to deal with glitches that happen when you have a mechanical system and sometimes it doesn’t work the way you want it to work, eg the clicking sound from a hard disk that is broken. This is the mystification of this process of making smaller sounds with the error of the mechanical system.
The Detroit techno guys working with analogue hardware also often created novelty sounds through misusing their machines.
MSG: One thing that art does is trying to cross boundaries. With all the digital music, you can do anything, the digital sound is processed a million of times. But with robots, it’s not so wide spread.
It’s more physical, not the virtual world of Ableton.
MSG: It’s also more complicated because you have to deal with all these real world problems, not only the virtual ones like how to download a sample as fast as possible.
You mentioned anti-passiveness as an aim. Does that mean Sonic Robots has a social perspective as well?
MSG: When you have a system, a keyboard or a synth, and you have presets, it’s quite easy to start with it, but at some point, our aim is to look behind the curtain and see how, for example, a tone is created, how a system does what it does and to understand the gear in the background and change the system in the way that it does what you actually want it to do. We try to make reality work the way we want it to. You can relate this to a lot of topics, social topics like social hacking for example, and I’m relating it to music.
You were also working with Mouse On Mars and Tyondai Braxton, can you talk about the collaboration?
MSG: It started in the beginning of last year. We did a piece by Terry Riley called In C. Because it’s serial music, the step from making it from an orchestral piece into a robotic one is not so far fetched. There are several minutes where one person in the orchestra is playing one note, like the C, ding ding ding, and and this can be also done with a robot. Mouse On Mars were searching for someone who could deal with all this technical stuff, we got together, and the organisers proposed Tyondai to work with us. We got along quite well and we are often in the studio trying out robotic stuff and recording.
How is Dresden, is there a group of like-minded people in this respect?
MSG: Dresden is not as big as Berlin for this of course. In some respect this is relaxing because after five years, you know everybody. When it comes to electronic music, there’s the label Uncanny Valley with Jacob Korn and all the other artists. From the music hacking side there’s also a lot going on, the circuit bending project by Alwin Weber, for instance. There’s a circuit bending festival each year, the only festival of its kind in Europe. I did a workshop there last year. There are these crazy specialists who normally only work in their cellars or bedrooms, and they come out at night, and sometimes they come out to the Dresden festival. They have so much knowledge about technical things.
What are your upcoming projects?
MSG: One thing is the album I’m currently recording with Andi from Mouse On Mars. Apart from that we are playing a lot of concerts at the moment, so it can get a bit much. We are also constantly building new robots. The Glitch Robot is finished, but all this robotic stuff tends to break when you transport it. We are also building two new robots, one doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s a bass robot which makes wonderful bass sounds. I also have a box with sheets for all the robots I want to build, which could keep me busy for the next ten years.
Do you have a dream robot or robotic project?
MSG: My dream would be to have a workshop where people would work constantly. Apart from that I have an idea of making every aspect of electronic sound played by robots. But for me this is not a dream, I know that at some point I will have enough robots to not have so many synths on the stage anymore.