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I, Robot

Kenneth Colley and Yolanda Kettle with readings from Descartes to Philip K Dick and music from Haydn and Handel to Ligeti and Reich in an exploration of robots and automata.

Readers Kenneth Colley and Yolanda Kettle. From Descartes' thought experiments on the way clockwork illuminates animal nature, via Hoffmann's humorous but slightly anxious fantasia about the chaos caused when an automaton is introduced into polite society, to modern science fiction's explorations of how humans and robots might ultimately meet in an apocalyptic conflict. With music from Bach, Haydn and Handel, to Ligeti, Stockhausen and Reich, and Aphex Twin.

Producer: Luke Mulhall

Image: 26th April 1955: A youth makes his homemade robot walk. (Credit: Keystone / Getty Images)

19 days left to listen

1 hour, 14 minutes

Last on

Sun 12 Jan 2020 17:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    Johann Sebastian Bach

    Modulating canon from A Musical Offering

    Performer: Michael Monroe.
    • N/A – I took it from his website here:
    • Tr N/A.
  • Robert Pinsky

    The Robots, read by Yolanda Kettle

  • 00:03

    Karlheinz Stockhausen

    Tierkreis, Pisces & Aries

    Performer: Suzanne Stephens & Kathinka Pasveer.
    • Tr 47-52.
  • Edmund Spenser

    The Fairie Queen, Bk 6, extract, read by Kenneth Colley

  • Christopher Marlowe

    Hero & Leander, extract, read by Yolanda Kettle

  • Rene Descartes

    Discourse on Method, read by Kenneth Colley

  • 00:14

    Joseph Haydn

    Symphony No. 101 in D ‘Clock’, 2. Andante

    Performer: Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields.
    • PHILIPS 4208662 [1].
    • Tr 6.
  • Denis Diderot

    Conversation Between D’Alambert & Diderot, reads by Yolanda Kettle

  • 00:20

    Olivier Messiaen

    Le merle noir

    Performer: Peter-Lukas Graf, Michio Kobayashi.
    • CLAVES CD500704 [1].
    • Tr 9.
  • E.T.A. Hoffmann

    The Sandman, read by Kenneth Colley

  • Philip K Dick

    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Read by Yolanda Kettle

  • 00:36

    Georgy Ligeti

    Etudes for Piano arranged for Player Piano, no. IX Vertige

    Performer: Jürgen Hocker.
    • SONY SK62310.
    • Tr 19.
  • Douglas Adams

    Life, The Universe & Everything, read by Kenneth Colley

  • 00:39


    Piano Sonata no. 11 in A major K.331, 3. Alla Turca, Allegrino

    Performer: Noriko Ogawa.
    • BISSACD1985 [1].
    • Tr 6.
  • L. Frank Baum

    Osma of Oz, read by Yolanda Kettle

  • 00:45

    Steve Reich

    Music for 18 Musicians 1. Pulses

    Performer: Steve Reich and Musicians.
    • NONESUCH 7559794482 [1].
    • Tr 1.
  • Karel Capek

    R.U.R. read by Kenneth Colley

  • Isaac Asimov

    Runaround, read by Kenneth Colley

  • 00:58

    Aphex Twin

    To Cure A Weakling Child: Contour Regard

    Performer: Aphex Twin (Richard David James).
    • Crysalis Music Ltd.
    • Tr 05.
  • Isaac Asimov

    The Evitable End, read by Yolanda Kettle

  • 01:04

    Conlon Nancarrow

    Study for Player Piano No. 21

    Performer: Conlon Nancarrow.
    • WERGO WER60166750 [2].
    • CD1 Tr 8.
  • Jorge Louis Borges

    The Game of Chess, read by Kenneth Colley

  • 01:08


    HAL 9000

    Performer: n/a.
    • n/a.
    • Tr 13.
  • Sara Teasdale

    There Will Come Soft Rains, read by Yolanda Kettle

  • 01:10

    Johann Sebastian Bach

    Modulating canon from A Musical Offering

    Performer: Michael Monroe.
    • N/A – I took it from his website here:
    • Tr N/A.

Producer Notes: I Robot

Early on in the process of making this programme some people I spoke to expressed scepticism about the idea that there would be enough relevant material in the classical canon to sustain a programme like this about robots. It is true that the word ‘robot’ did not enter the language until the 20th century, in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), and I’ve included an excerpt from that work in the programme (although Capek’s robots are not exactly robots as we often think of them, i.e, mechanical men – they’re flesh-and-blood workers engineered just to work). But despite the relatively recent introduction of the word, the concept of a robot is a point of convergence for lots of human preoccupations which are as old as the hills: How will technology change us? What should our relationship with work be like? How should we deal with conflict? Where should we find comfort? What does it mean to be alive? Surely these questions and others like them are dealt with at length in all areas of human culture. 

After an electronic rendition of Bach’s modulating canon from the Musical Offering, arranged to play on an endless loop, we hear Robert Pinsky’s imaginative unveiling of the arrival of the robots in his poem ‘The Robots’. After that we have a sequence of words and music exploring pre-industrial Europe’s fascination with the cultural predecessor of the robot, the automaton. From Descartes and Diderot using the example of the automaton as a reference point to debate what sets living things apart from everything else, and what distinguishes rational beings as a subset of living things, we move to Hoffmann’s rather more anxious – and humerous – exploration of the same question. Bird automata feature in several of the readings, so Messiaen’s study of bird song is joined with part of the second movement of Haydn’s 100th Symphony, inspired by clockwork, and music inspired directly by automata from Tchaikovsky and Offenbach. An extract from Handel’s warlike oratorio Judas Maccabaeus acknowledges the (modern) use of robots in warfare, and the last movement of Mozart’s 11th Piano Sonata is a nod to the 18th century hoax The Mechanical Turk – supposedly an automaton capable of playing chess.    

The further we move into the 20th century, the more anxious the extracts become, but they also take on a visionary edge. Philip K. Dick’s depiction of the melancholy of a comfort robot is joined by a rendition of Ligeti’s study for piano Vertige, arranged for player piano; an extract from Capek’s RUR, describing the robot for the first time, as a soulless worker, is set off on the one hand by the translucent lightness of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, surely a response on some level to the experience of mechanisation, and on the other by the extremely human lament of the Hebrew slaves, from Verdi’s Nabucco.

The idea that robots will ultimately destroy humanity is broached and explored in two extracts from Isaac Asimov, Borges poem about chess, and a reflection on where it all might end from Sara Teasdale (the title of which was borrowed by Ray Bradbury for a short story about a robotised house at the nuclear apocalypse) along with a piece of techno futurism from Aphex Twin, and some more frantic music for player piano, this time a study by Colnon Nancarrow. 

We finish where we started, with Bach’s never ending canon.

Producer:  Luke Mulhall



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