Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

Tod Machover shares some of the extraordinary new musical interfaces he has been creating at the MIT Media Lab and explains how and why these new technologies will redefine music in the 21st century.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Tod Machover Comp/struction set
Fabric Ball Musical Jacket TransFlow Room, Meteorite Museum, Essen, Germany

Tod Machover; Comp/struction set
Bottom: Fabric Ball; Musical Jacket; TransFlow Room, Meteorite Museum, Essen Germany
Photo credits
Top: Tod Machover — Webb Chappell; Comp/struction set — Maggie Orth
Bottom: Fabric Ball, Musical Jacket, Transflow Room — MIT Media Laboratory

Wednesday, August 18, 1999 from 4:00 – 6:00 PM
at the MIT Media Labs, Cambridge MA

Tod Machover – Composer and Director of Hyperinstruments/Opera-of-the-Future Group, MIT Media Lab
Frank J. Oteri – Editor, NewMusicBox @ the American Music Center

Interview transcribed by Jennifer Allen Cooper

1. From Sgt. Pepper to IRCAM

FRANK J. OTERI: So it’s been a very, very interesting day up here, exploring the MIT Media Lab and seeing all the fascinating things going on, all the different gadgets. I feel like I’m already in the 21st century, even thought it’s still half a year away. Actually, by the time this goes up in October, it will only be a couple of months away.

TOD MACHOVER: True.

FRANK J. OTERI: Where to begin this thing? You’re in a sort of unique position, I think, to talk to us about the future of music and this whole question of technology in music and bridging the gap between the academic world and the vernacular world. You write music that’s largely very accessible, that aims to be accessible, yet at the same time, you’re working in an academic field, really at the cutting edge of a lot of technologies and a lot of thoughts about music. Where else to begin?

TOD MACHOVER: Where else to begin? Which end shall we start it from? I guess we could start at the end, which is to say that for whatever weird combination of reasons, I think I’ve made these choices, and maybe they’re sort of typical of being at the end of this century. There are an awful lot of different kinds of things that I’ve tried to juggle in my work, and many feelings and forms of expression that I’ve tried to bring together — and this remains not so easy to do. A lot of what I’ve been concerned with is, as you say, bringing the directness of live performance together with these crazy machines, which, even though they’re getting better and better, are still hard to manage. I mean, it’s still going to take another several generations before all of these machines feel as natural as the instruments that we grew up using. And I think it’s actually crazy that at the end of the 20th century, bringing humanism and science together is still not as easy as it should be, and bringing serious, sophisticated work that also reaches a general intelligent public is still not as easy as it should be, and bringing the art world and the entertainment world together is also elusive. So I think, hopefully, part of what we’ll cover is why its important to do these things, and how they’re starting to fit together, and why some of them still remain not so easy to bring together. I’m afraid there isn’t a simple answer to all of this.

Bounce -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [67 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Chansons d’Amour for piano (1982)
Robert Shannon – piano
from the CD Tod Machover: Bounce; Chansons d’Amour
{Bridge BCD 9040; distributed by Koch International}
Order from Amazon.com

FRANK J. OTERI: You say “these instruments that we all grew up with and all got to know about,” how did you get into the whole electronic instrument thing from the very beginning?

TOD MACHOVER: I started out as a performer… I grew up in New York. My mom’s a pianist, a piano teacher and very involved with new ways of teaching music to kids. My dad’s a computer scientist, one of the first people in computer graphics. So I grew up being very interested in music and also having technology around the house. I’m a cellist, so I’ve always loved performing, and I think because it’s a string instrument, melody has always been very central to what I’ve been interested in and I think the physicality of playing something like a cello has always been very present. I started getting interested in rock music around the time Sgt. Pepper’s came out, something like that, when I was in junior high, and started amplifying my cello and doing recordings of things and manipulating them on a little tape recorder we had, and basically got interested in electronics… I was never personally interested in patch cords and analog synthesizers; computers somehow that clicked for me, the idea of being able to imagine something I wanted to produce and then have this kind of moldable, general system that you could turn into anything you wanted to. So it was when I was at Juilliard, actually, when I was studying with Elliott Carter, that I first got interested in computers. I remember really well, I wrote a string trio, where — I think I was trying to be more extreme than Elliott at that point — a lot of the structure of the piece was based on these three strings instruments going in and out of phase with each other, and I wrote it all out in very precise notation so that there were rare moments when anybody was synchronized, and it was all metered, but there was never any pulse, so it was just perversely difficult to play. So I found somebody to teach me FORTRAN so that I could make a little tape of this piece to convince somebody to play it. It was as simple as that. And so I learned FORTRAN, and there was a punch-card system down at City University of New York, in Midtown, and so I made this tape. That was a very kind of specific thing to do, but I got interested in this idea of being able to go straight from the imagination to programming this machine to produce anything I wanted.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now you never thought of the FORTRAN tape as the end-resultant performance, you were always thinking, “Okay, I’ll have this FORTRAN tape and then musicians will want to do it”? A lot of other composers went down the road of writing specifically for computers and that that was the end-result performance. Why didn’t that interest you?

TOD MACHOVER: In my gut, I believed personally at that point that it sounded awful. It was very schematic… I mean, most things were missing. The one thing that wasn’t missing was enough of an idea of the structure, the harmony, the rhythm, the flow — the things that people couldn’t imagine just from the score, that it would help people… In fact, I did convince people to play that piece and a couple of others. So at that point, I knew that it was a really reduced form of what I was imagining. But I think I also intuitively realized that there was just incredible power behind two things: One, the ability of imagining almost anything and to turn it into sound; and two, the ability to mold your musical materials interactively, as a sculptor molds clay. I mean, once you understand what programming can do, and you understand the generality of a computer, even 20 years ago, because this was in the mid ’70s, late ’70s, I think it was pretty easy to figure out that this was just going to blossom and that it was really a different way of going from your imagination to something real. Even the fact of being able to make just a terrible reduced mock-up of a piece also suggested something else to me, which is at that time at a place like Juilliard, which is even nowadays still true in some ways, a lot of the classical training for composers, certainly at most conservatories, is it’s still based on the Beethoven model of composing, part of which is really good. You know, you develop your technique; you develop your inner ear; you develop integrity for thinking through musical ideas. But I think it’s also a kind of macho idea that a composer’s supposed to be deaf.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right, and you think it in your head and you’ve got this complete vision, and there’s no sense of discovery…

TOD MACHOVER: … There’s no trial and error, no hands-on playing with the actual musical material.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s all laboratory??

TOD MACHOVER: Right, and I think it’s incredibly important; I think it’s really valuable to have both. I think these days, with MIDI and the incredible facility to make anything happen in sound, it’s gone probably too far in the other direction, where lots of people grow up learning composition with their hands on a keyboard and not imagining things in their heads. But I think that twenty years ago, I had this intuition that if you took your inner training and the ability to think about music structure, and also had the ability to experiment and actually play with musical material, it would be just a fantastic combination. You really needed both. So at I got very interested in was how to make the materials available that you needed to try things out as a composer, and eventually to have electronic materials that would be constructed very meticulously and also could be manipulated expressively. So I went to IRCAM in Paris, pretty soon after it was starting. I did my master’s at Juilliard and started the doctoral program and then got invited to go to IRCAM for a year after I’d done a year in the doctoral program and took a leave of absence from Juilliard and ended up staying at IRCAM for seven years.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what was the reaction at IRCAM to a young American who was interested in Sgt. Pepper’s?

TOD MACHOVER: Actually, by the time I got to IRCAM, I wasn’t that interested in pop music anymore. I’d been really interested in pop music, and rock music especially, through high school into the beginnings of really starting to compose. And then during the time I was at Juilliard, I was much more interested in everything from late Beethoven to especially the first half of the 20th century, especially the 2nd Viennese School, and Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio. And actually, to be honest, when I first went to IRCAM, part of the reason I went there — besides being interested in music and technology — was that I was fascinated by Pierre Boulez’s music and the whole European avant-garde tradition. For instance, I wasn’t at all interested in John Cage‘s music when I first went to IRCAM. And one of the funny things that happened was that the longer I stayed in Paris — while learning an enormous amount, both about technology and about the European way of thinking about music — the more I came to value a lot of things about American music that I’d sort of taken for granted by growing up here. I started to love John Cage’s music and love Ives‘s music and love a wide variety of things that I wasn’t interested in when I was at Juilliard. And I also started to find my own personal voice as a composer — I was 22 years old when I went over to Paris — and the more it came out as kind of a (very un-French!) hybrid… And I started thinking about rock music again as something that meant an enormous amount to me, especially for texture and timbre and rhythmic vitality.

FRANK J. OTERI: And for immediacy with audiences.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, I think partly immediacy with audiences, but also partly I think an incredible freshness and kind of incendiary quality of being on the edge, which classic rock and pop music seldom has anymore. I think that more than being accessible, I’ve always been looking for something which just makes people pay attention and listen carefully.

FRANK J. OTERI: Something that’s pushing the envelope in some ways.

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, and I think that how you do that in a way that invites people in, and also is surprising in just the right way, is something that you have to keep reinventing. It’s not so simple.

2. Classic Hyperinstruments

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting that you mention Cage, because Cage is a perfect example of a composer for whom every piece was a laboratory, every piece was an experiment. And in working with these new instruments… a lot of the pieces that you develop are for people, actually audience members, to play themselves. They’re participatory instruments. And one could argue that the program that goes into designing these instruments is the piece, and the outcome is always different, because audience members play these instruments and it becomes an interactive environment, where they’re in essence composing the music that they’re hearing. They’re creating it as improvising performers in real time, but they’re really working within the parameters of the programs that you’ve designed so that the program then is the piece.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, the first interactive instruments I designed were actually based on a somewhat different model. While at IRCAM in 1981, I composed one of the first pieces, “Fusione Fugace” for solo performance on a real-time digital synthesizer, called the 4X machine. For this piece we designed special keyboards, buttons, and slider boxes which allowed three interconnected performers to control all aspects of a complex evolving timbres. When I got to the Media Lab in 1985, I became interested in adding “intelligence” to the computers sitting between performance controllers and MIDI sound output devices. We coined the term “hyperinstruments” in 1986 to describe interactive instruments that gave skilled performers enhanced expressive capabilities. The technique was first used in 1987 for my opera Valis, commissioned for the 10th anniversary of Paris’ Centre Pompidou, and allowed two performers — on keyboard and percussion — to shape and control a whole evening’s worth of complex electronic sound. A next stage for this work was in 1991, when we designed a hypercello for Yo-Yo Ma, and I composed “Begin Again Again…“. Complex physical sensors on the cello, bow, and wrist allowed Yo-Yo to shape each extended performance differently. Paradoxically, as our “virtuosic” hyperinstruments got better, I saw the possibilities of using such advanced measurement and enhancing techniques to build hyperinstruments for non-professional musicians, the general public, children, etc. After the hypercello, we designed a “Sensor Chair” which measured the electricity flowing through your body when you sat on the chair, allowing hand and body movement to control music very precisely. I considered this a kind of “virtuosic” instrument for amateurs, and it led to me thinking about making a whole orchestra of these instruments for the general public. This in turn led to the Brain Opera, which premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1996 and which will be permanently installed at the new House of Music in Vienna in Spring 2000. And this past year, I worked on the Meteorite project in Essen, Germany, where we created a permanent, underground building — with a kind of walk-through opera — where the public can play, shape and modify music and images on a fairly large scale.

3. John Cage and Structure

FRANK J. OTERI: So what about the Cage influence in a public-oriented interactive project like the Brain Opera or Meteorite?

TOD MACHOVER: Yes, I think that Cage has been the biggest inspiration for that line of work for me. And I also think there is a significant difference from Cage’s philosophy in what I’ve tried to do… I think Cage was so fantastic because he was one of those few people who was incredibly extreme in what he proposed, as we all know. Well, it’s not so simple. What he said he proposed was a situation where he was trying to strip away rules so that if, as he always said, people listened carefully enough or in the right way to the world around them, you wouldn’t need composers and you wouldn’t need pieces; you wouldn’t need a concert situation at all. At the same time, although Cage didn’t write software that constrained instruments, he did obviously choose very carefully the musical materials that were used or the particular theme of the work or the particular way that audiences were juxtaposed with the performers; I mean, it wasn’t random. So there’s a kind of tension between the complete freedom that Cage advocated, and the necessity to shape situations so that the most fruitful result is likely to occur. And I believe that John knew this and practiced it, although he didn’t often say it.

FRANK J. OTERI: You can hear a Cage sound.

TOD MACHOVER: Absolutely.

FRANK J. OTERI: You can identify the sound. There’s a personality there, despite the random ideas behind it. They’re very well worked out a lot of the time.

Flora -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [27 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Famine (1985-86)
For 4 amplified voices and computer-generated tape
Electric Phoenix:
Judith Rees – soprano; Mary King – mezzo-soprano; Daryl Runswick – tenor; Terry Edwards – bass; John Whiting – sound engineer
from the CD Tod Machover: Flora
{Bridge BCD 9020; distributed by Koch International}
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TOD MACHOVER: For me, the goal in work that invites the public in to be co-participants, ideally would be something where the context and maybe the general feel of the work, the world it inhabits, is kind of set up and defined, and within that there truly is room for something unexpected to happen and for people to feel like they’ve been allowed to really contribute, not to be manipulated. It’s very hard to do this right. The two extremes are either to give something the equivalent of a crayon and a blank piece of paper or a piano keyboard and say “Come to my party and make whatever you want to,” and of course that’s too daunting… that’s not enough structure, not enough constraint. The other extreme is to say, “I’m giving you an instrument. You can push the start button, and then…” You can constrain it too much, so that people don’t have room to do anything interesting. To create precisely the situation where somebody can do something really personal and special and contribute and feel like something wonderful has happened, that’s I think a major goal for a certain kind of work that should be done now, and it’s very hard to do.

FRANK J. OTERI: This whole notion of structure in a way is liberating. I remember over 10 years ago, I was an English teacher in the New York City high school system, and I would tell my students to write a poem or an essay or something, and a lot of them couldn’t come up with anything. And then I taught them about sonnets and said, “Write a sonnet or write a haiku,” and my chairman said, “You’re not going to get these kids to write sonnets. They can’t write sonnets; this is an incredibly difficult form.” But it was easier for them to write sonnets than it was for them just to write on a topic, to write anything. Because they had 14 lines; there was a goal; there’s a rhyme scheme; there were do’s and don’ts. There was a skeleton that they were able to plant ideas into rather than having a completely empty piece of paper.

TOD MACHOVER: Right. I think the nice thing is that there are a lot of ways to organize creative situations. One of best things about working at a place like this, like the Media Lab, is it’s a place designed to get people together to think of new ideas. One of the things that has been fun is that, depending on the kind of problem that we’re trying to solve or the nature of the project, the process for getting there can be completely different. Like today. You happen to be here on a day when we’ve made a breakthrough. We’re trying to come up with something that’s quite different from anything we’ve ever done, to build a kind of wild Lego kit of the future that would let children experiment with making pieces of music, so we’re calling it a music construction kit. Something where, again, there’s enough structure to guide children to do really creative things. What does it mean to have a physical construction piece that would be the right part of composition or sound? You know, you don’t want it to be a couple of notes or a melody; that’s too static, rigid, and simplistic. You want it to be an element that can be redefined all the time. You want something about the shape of this “Big Thing” as you build it to suggest something about the way it sounds. I give this as an example because we’ve set up a sort of brainstorming and design group with a general shared vision and goal, but little specific idea about what the final design is going to be. It’s been an incredibly arduous process… It’s taken us probably six months to get this far, and I’ve tried to be very careful about not wanting to lock in on an instrument design too soon. We’ve tried to give ourselves the liberty of really being bold about coming up with something that’s very different. And every time it doesn’t feel right, instead of saying, “Okay, let’s lock the design in now and start building it,” we say, “Let’s give it another week or two.” And I think that’s let us come up with a design which is really quite radical and nothing that we could have imagined six months ago. And I think that you could set up a situation like that for children or for audiences or in any kind of situation where if the imagination process is defined well enough, there is a way to have an open structure for creativity with a goal at the end where something very special will in fact emerge. I mean, you design the tools, the instruments and the environment where this kind of thing can happen. One of the next projects that we’re working on now is something that I’m calling “Toy Symphony.” We’re making Music Toys for kids age 2 to 10, and they’re being designed so that workshops in a variety of different cities can take place with children and these toys and symphony orchestras. We’re trying to set it up in such a way where kids will be able to work with professional musicians and these music toys over a period of months, so that the form of the collaborations will very open — different unlike something like the Brain Opera, where we had people coming in off the street with only 45 minutes or with these instruments to make something. In a situation like that, the instruments have to be very clearly defined and very constrained. You know, you can’t have somebody walk in, learn an instrument and do something incredibly interesting in 45 minutes without a fairly clear context. With these music toys, I’m thinking of it more as an open creativity workshop where something very surprising might could out of it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, the flip side of this, which I think is equally interesting, is you say that in a few minutes you can’t get onto a new instrument and expect to create something wonderful.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, you can, but it has to be very carefully defined.

FRANK J. OTERI: By the same notion, what I find so interesting about creating new instruments and what you’ve been doing is that with the instruments that we’re all used to — the violin or the cello or the flute or the clarinet or the piano — there’s so much baggage already. There’s so much repertoire; there are so many expectations. And a lot of classically trained musicians won’t veer from the course. There are a lot of musicians who are afraid to improvise, who are afraid to do anything that goes outside those parameters. And here you have a new instrument; you’re forced to do something new with it. There’s no tradition. There’s no Beethoven or Brahms string quartet in the back of your mind saying, “Oh, well, gee we have to live up to this.”

TOD MACHOVER: Right.

FRANK J. OTERI: And there are no great soloists. You know, nowadays, a violinist plays the Brahms Violin Concerto, and there are like 50 recordings in the past to listen to and say, “I want to play this second movement the way Henryk Szeryng played it.” Or, “I want to play the finale the way Nathan Milstein played it.” You know, there’s no context. You have to invent, which makes it more exciting.

4. Interactive Music

TOD MACHOVER: I think this brings up an interesting question, which is clearly one of the things that technology starts to help us redefine in the relationship between all the different functions for music making and music producing. You know, performers versus composers versus listeners versus conductors. It may turn out that 100 years down the line everything’s been shuffled and that these categories will reemerge very much like they are now. But my guess is that these categories will blur more and more. One of the things I see as a possibility with these instruments is — not just instruments but generally the kind of technology environments that we are starting to build for music now — is that we could take some of the focus off of physical virtuosity and the kind of athleticism of learning to play an instrument, and put as much focus as we could on the mental and emotional activities of music, whether it’s being a better listener or imagining things and making them happen or interpreting things to your liking. Traditional instruments are hard to play. It takes a long time to physical skills which aren’t necessarily the essential qualities of making music. It takes years just to get good tone quality on a violin or to play in tune. If we could find a way to allow people to spend the same amount of concentration and effort on listening and thinking and evaluating the difference between things and thinking about how to communicate musical ideas to somebody else, how to make music with somebody else, it would be a great advantage. Not only would the general level of musical creativity go up, but you’d have a much more aware, educated, sensitive, listening, and participatory public.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting, looking back at the history of mankind, you have the so-called primitive societies or ancient societies, where everybody had their own song. Everybody made their own song, and they sang their own song, and it was part of their identity to have their own songs. There are still Native American tribes where everybody has their own song, groups in the South Pacific who have their own songs. And then we slowly get an industrialized culture in the Far East or in Europe from Medieval times to say the 19th century, where people maybe didn’t have their own songs, but they had instruments in their homes. In society families in Japan, there’d always be somebody with a koto in their home, and here in the West, you’d have a piano in every household, and people would play chamber music in the 19th century. In fact, the very words “chamber music” tells you that it was made in people’s homes. And then something happened.

TOD MACHOVER: And the other thing, people would go to church or synagogue or whatever every week, and they’d sing together.

FRANK J. OTERI: And then you get into this thing when electronics first happened. It was a blessing and a curse at the same time. Finally, you had reproducible sound, first with recordings and people bought recordings and played those recordings. Then you had radio, and people didn’t even choose their own recordings; they listened to what was chosen for them. And then television, and then music sort of got diminished further and further. For a while, a lot of people had guitars in their homes. Every college dorm room had a guitar in it. But nowadays there are many homes that have no instruments in them at all. At the end of this century, you’re in a way, with the highest level of technology, bringing music back to the very root, bringing it back to everybody.

Spectres -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [46 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Nature’s Breath (1984)
The Prism Orchestra conducted by Robert Black
from the CD Tod Machover: Spectres
{Bridge BCD 9002; distributed by Koch International}
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TOD MACHOVER: Everything you say is right. There’s even the further paradox right now, which is that although there is less and less direct, informal music making by the general public, at the same time you have music everywhere, in kind of a grotesque way. I was in Houston recently, and downtown they pipe music up through the sidewalk. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s really loud in the restaurants, too. So people seem to want music playing all the time, in the car, while we dine, in elevators, at work, while we read or study. This music studio is one of the few spaces I’ve been in recently where there wasn’t music in the background. So music’s around all the time, but fewer and fewer people actually participate in it themselves. It’s not a mystery to say there’s some disconnect there, and anything we can do to make those ends meet is I think a really good thing. Even if we got rid of the technology and just encouraged people to sing, that would be great. But I think one of the wonderful things about technology is that it should allow this reconnection with active music participation. Part of the problem is that music itself has this incredible paradox that both seduces people and shuns them. It’s one of the most direct, visceral experiences we can have, and connects with our deepest emotional desires. It hits us really deeply and directly. But music also has involves an incredible degree of specialization and expertise which scares many people away. Instruments are hard to play; music theory is hard to learn and understand; music history and culture is vast and overwhelming. How many times do you hear people say, “Oh, gee, I’m tone deaf,” or, “I don’t really know about music,” or, “I can’t sing,” or, “I don’t know anything about music theory”? I hear that all the time from intelligent, educated people who would never hesitate to look at a photo or painting, or to read a story or poem, let alone to watch TV or go to the movies. Nor would they hesitate to pronounce judgment on any of these things.

FRANK J. OTERI: Sometimes people won’t even listen to music. They’ll say, “Gee, I can’t really appreciate a piece of classical music. I never really studied music.” I hear that a lot.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, this just isn’t true. Anybody can respond to music and hear music, and I think that given the right set of tools — something you can get your hands on and try and manipulate and see the differences between one thing and another and maybe try to shape something yourself or try to combine things, the kind of basic level of playing with sound that people don’t usually have an opportunity to do — with these tools we can break down these barriers. With the possibilities of new technology, we have a chance to offer that kind of experience to people. And I believe that — subversively, as composers, I we have an amazing opportunity of making experiences that don’t just teach people about music but teach people about our music. It’s funny, because five to ten years ago, when the entertainment industry started to catch on to interactive media, especially through video games, there was an initial euphoria that this could be converted into enriching artistic experiences, riding the wave of the financial boom this was creating. But even today, there are not that many CD-ROMs or Web sites coming out with pieces of music that a listener can explore or recombine or learn about; I think that there’s an enormous potential there that hasn’t really been tapped. Not just for training better listeners, but for having people actually understand how our music is put together. Instead of liner notes, people could be designing compositions where part of listening would actually be a way of exploring the melodies and themes and structures of your particular piece. Fundamentally, this is one of the experiments I tried to make with the Brain Opera, where the public experimented with our hyperinstruments — but also with the work’s fundamental musical materials — before hearing a concert where all of these elements were combined and unified.

FRANK J. OTERI: It makes it much more hands-on.

TOD MACHOVER: It’s wonderful… The technology is starting to be there. It’s a really challenging thing for each of us to think of putting our music in a form where people approach it by playing with it and then listening to bits of it, all of it. I think it’s a real potential for all of us to draw listeners into what we’re doing.

5. Musical Nose and Sea Anemone

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s one thing to tell somebody you’re doing something, but it’s another to have them figure it out on their own in real time. And this gets back to this notion of education and, whether it’s teaching people sonnets in the classroom or having them actually play instruments to learn about music rather than having sort of an abstract music appreciation experience or learning a foreign language by actually being immersed in it, learning how to speak it. And I think one of the things that’s really amazing about what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been working on with a number of your students is a lot of the projects for children and bringing young children into the process of being fascinated by the joy of their own ability to make sound, to manipulate environments with sound and doing it with objects that you wouldn’t normally associate with music. Everybody knows, well, a keyboard makes music; a violin makes music; a cello makes music. But we have a bunch of objects over here, everything from this denim jacket. This denim jacket makes music; it’s a music-making jacket. These balls make music. I don’t know what these things are…

TOD MACHOVER: Those are actually elements from the Brain Opera.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is a nose.

TOD MACHOVER: It’s a nose, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a musical nose.

TOD MACHOVER: It’s a musical nose.

FRANK J. OTERI: What is the musical nose for?

TOD MACHOVER: There are a few ideas wrapped up in this kind of work. One idea is that if you’re going to try to find alternatives to traditional instruments, you really have to understand what makes those instruments so wonderful, and then translate those qualities — while introducing new ones — in a creative, non-literal way. I think there are a lot of reasons for extending our existing musical instruments through new technology: they sound really great, have pretty good interfaces that have developed over many years, have real personality and expressive range, etc. This is an approach that’s worthwhile. But its also true that our existing instruments are confined by their physical characteristics, are full of associations which are both wonderful yet also tied to the past, and are designed to produce and manipulate certain kinds of sound and not others. Now if you’re going to move away from the world of existing instruments to create totally new ones, the last thing you want to do is to take away all the richness of what we already have, both of sound and of the way people express themselves. The worst thing you can do is to throw away a violin and come up with a shitty keyboard as your future interface. Even electronic keyboard instruments don’t feel anywhere near as good as acoustic instruments do. You basically have a few of options, but in my view only one is fruitful. The bad options are to come up with some computer interface which works well technologically, like a mouse or a keyboard or a joystick, and try to make music with that. That’s what computer companies are going to want you to do, because they’re making millions of those for applications that work pretty well for computers (although I’d argue that mice and keyboards are lousy interfaces for computers too). They’re terrible. So that’s not a good option for music. A second option is making imitations of existing instruments that don’t make any sound on their own, but are designed to send data to a computer, like electronic keyboard controllers…

Bounce -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [55 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Bounce (1992)
for Disklavier, Electronic Keyboard & Hyperinstrument Electronics
Robert Shannon – keyboards
from the CD Tod Machover: Bounce; Chansons d’Amour
{Bridge BCD 9040; distributed by Koch International}
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FRANK J. OTERI: Or a lyricon, or guitar synthesizers

TOD MACHOVER: Those are okay, but they’re usually going to be bad versions of existing instruments by taking away the acoustical richness. The only advantage to building interfaces like that is that you take the technique that somebody would have learned on an existing instrument and you plug it in directly to an electronic music environment. So for a short term, that’s not a bad way to go. In the long — if you did want to harness existing instruments — it would be much better to use the full acoustic sound and to find much better ways of analyzing and “understanding” the expression and meaning in that sound than we now know how to do. I think that a lot of the electronic instrument controllers are like castrated instruments or something. They’re instruments with the most interesting part taken away. So I think the right way to go is to abstract or formalize one level higher, to imagine what it feels like to play an instrument, what it feels like to go from your emotions, from your mind, through your body into sound. Don’t try to make a bad computer interface, don’t try to make a natural instrument, but try to make something new that measures what we do physically — stemming from a profound, intuitive impulse — in completely different way. So we’ve been experimenting noses, of course, but with generally with diverse materials and techniques that feel different and behave in new ways. Two of our recent projects, Squeezables and Stretchables, explore the many different interfaces and music-manipulation concepts needed to develop this kind of work.

FRANK J. OTERI: Why noses?

TOD MACHOVER: For the Brain Opera, we wanted to make an enormous rhythm instrument, the Rhythm Tree, something where there would be lots and lots of physical objects — about five hundred of them — in a fairly large space. We wanted things that would be small enough that you could touch them and that would be both sensitive and robust. We also wanted the entire Brain Opera to be as far as possible from any traditional hi-tech associations, so we opted for organic materials, metaphors, and objects — textiles, rubber, and lots of curves, instead of plastic, metal and right angles.

FRANK J. OTERI: What is this?

TOD MACHOVER: It’s kind of like a sea anemone. We wanted a lot of these, each one that could have an individuality to it. We wanted things that would be…

FRANK J. OTERI: You tap and it makes a sound?

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, this is polyurethane rubber, so it’s something which can be squeezed, so it’s sensitive enough that you can kind of touch it lightly and it will measure what you’re doing. But you can also pound the hell out of it and it won’t break.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you can create music from punching a nose?

TOD MACHOVER: Punching a nose or picking a nose or touching a nose. This particular is sensitive and sensuous, and it’s also robust.

FRANK J. OTERI: I see it’s got like two little phone jacks on the back of it.

TOD MACHOVER: That’s right, and it also has what’s called a PIC, which is a complete computer on a little circuit. This computer has enough processing in it to measure when I touch it, how hard I touch it, and where I touch it. You can see it, the camera can’t, it has a little red thing sticking up there that’s actually a sensing wire. It’s made out of something called piezoelectric. It has a little sensing wire which actually vibrates when you touch the nose, and it’s sensitive enough that on that little computer chip to sense how much and in what direction it’s vibrating, so it vibrates differently depending on where I touch it. So this little nose, any one of these individual pads, which are inexpensive to build, is actually pretty sophisticated. Each one does its own processing. It doesn’t make any sound, so that’s what the phone jacks are for. We send the data from this to a central computer which in turn pilots a collection of sound-producing devices. It’s actually a little intelligent computer with a very sensitive interface on it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, theoretically, while we’re still on the topic of the nose and the sea anemone, these are the instruments that people could make sounds with themselves based on parameters that you’ve set up. So, in a way, you couldn’t create just any music you wanted on these.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, this is just an interface. And we are constantly looking to find interfaces which are more sensitive, responsive, and expressive.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s a ball.

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, this is what we call a Fabric Ball. What we did after making these rubber things was to say, “Well, how could you have something that is even more fun to touch, is lighter, is less expensive, is really squeezable, so something you might give to a 5-year-old and say, ‘Trace your finger on the thread, squeeze it, throw it to a friend.” So the big innovation here was how to find the material which was delicate and firm, how to put a computer on it, and how to measure the presence, pressure, vibrations of delicate touch. The innovation here is how to take thread itself — regular embroidered thread, and use that to measure the electricity in my finger. The thread is the interface, so by touching the thread, it can tell where I’m touching it and it can tell the pressure of my finger on the thread. It’s really a new thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: So how do you rig this up to get sound out of it?

TOD MACHOVER: There are a variety of ways of doing it. Something like this, for instance, is a teeny-weeny MIDI synthesizer that we built. It’s probably one of the smallest. It has a little sound chip and everything you need to control the sound chip. We’re making these smaller and smaller. It’s very light. So you take one of these and put it inside. The thread just sends data straight to that little MIDI chip. That’s all you need to have a full synthesizer controlled by squeezing and touching. One of the big problems these days is something as dumb as how to get loudspeakers which sound good and are small. That’s actually something we’re not doing a lot of research on here and which hopefully somebody who reads NewMusicBox will do! It’s unbelievable. I’m not particularly enamored of electric sound. My dream would be to have new kinds of interfaces that are intuitive, sensuous, sophisticated that end up making sound that is as rich and as three-dimensional and as varied as natural acoustic sound… One way you could do it would be to have a ball like this sending data to, let’s say, a room full of Trimpin instruments manipulating physical things. I think the real trick for the future will be to find some way of combining physical objects that vibrate and make interesting sound themselves, with much higher-quality, small loudspeakers, maybe lots of tiny loud speakers rather than these big, neutral gray-sounding boxes that we have these days. That’s something nobody’s solved yet.

6. Theremin

FRANK J. OTERI: A piano keyboard is very logically designed… Once you know the system, the analog makes a lot of sense — the seven white keys, the five black keys, the patterns repeat, you’re up the octave, you know what note you’re hitting. On a violin, it’s the distance that you play, and it’s actually more difficult in terms of having intonation. There are no frets; you have to tactilely figure it out and through playing it, you know. And with a trombone, even more so. The extreme of that is probably the theremin, an early electronic instrument which is popular again.

Spectres -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [72 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Spectres Parisiens (1984)
The Asko Ensemble conducted by Peter Eötvös
from the CD Tod Machover: Spectres
{Bridge BCD 9002; distributed by Koch International}
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TOD MACHOVER: I think the theremin is a really good place to start this discussion, because the theremin is a completely new interface. It allows you to do something completely new, something that couldn’t be done with existing instruments. It allows you to move in space and control sound very precisely. It’s also probably the hardest instrument ever invented. It’s incredible in possibilities. On the other hand, you’re playing something with as much variation as a violin without any physical reference point. You’re just moving your hand in the air, trying to nail perfect intonation, nail amplitude control without having a bow. There’s nothing to push against. There’s no neck to figure out a reference position. I mean, the violin’s hard enough. It’s no accident that there are not that many theremin viruosi around… There’s Clara Rockmore

FRANK J. OTERI: And Lydia Kavina.

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, not to slight her. I mean, Clara Rockmore was better. It’s just hard to play the theremin; there’s no question about it.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s Samuel J. Hoffman, who did all the sci-fi and horror movies in Hollywood in the early ’50s.

TOD MACHOVER: Right. …he was pretty amazing, but he could probably edit what he did. It wasn’t live. It’s just a hard instrument. I think the technical answer to your question is that the amazing possibility of this whole new generation of instruments, composing devices, whatever you want to call them, is that, unlike the theremin, in between what you’re doing physically and the sound-producing device, there’s a computer, there’s software, which means that you can define the relationship between what you do and what comes out the other end. What the constraints are and what the definition of the instrument is yours to describe as designer and composer. And the good news about that, and in fact what I tend to do, is, just like with any musical composition, depending on who you’re designing this for — whether it’s for a 5-year-old, for a virtuoso musician, for somebody who’s got five minutes — you can define and design these constraints differently for every situation. Not cavalierly, but as an integral part of the musical work. I consider that one of my jobs as a composer these days is to design the way the interaction works, the way it feels, what it means to learn it, how much is given ahead of time, how much is free. And so the good news is that this power of being able to design exactly how the instrument works is available to the creative artist. The corollary to that is that you have to define it; nothing is free, nothing is predetermined.

FRANK J. OTERI: Unlike a piano, which has this analog, or even a theremin, you know, the closer you are, the farther you’re away, it might be difficult to realize, but you can conceptualize what that means. On the ball, what is C-sharp? How do you know where F- sharp is? How do you know what you’re doing on it? Or are you just making neat sounds? Where do you draw the line? Where does it stop being a toy and become an instrument, I guess is the question.

TOD MACHOVER: Probably there’s some room to build toys also. I mean, toys are fun.

FRANK J. OTERI: Toys are great.

TOD MACHOVER: Not to be flip about it, but I think there is room to build things which don’t do hundreds of different things, but rather does one thing extremely well… You know, something that might make one kind of sound. I mean, maybe we designed a version of this fabric ball that only made vocal sounds and had an incredible variety of ways of controlling vocal timbre or something that could be vocal to electronic. It did that one kind of thing sensitively and well, and you always knew it was going to be a voice and you weren’t going to make your own composition with it, but you were going to have a lot of fun changing the voice and exploring it. I think there’s room for things like that. My own feeling is that there are a couple of things to learn from the way we normally make music and from traditional instruments that are worth keeping in mind when you design a new one. One is that for any instrument or tool to be interesting, you have to be able to predict what it does and know that it’s going to do the same thing if you pick it up again. Another thing is that you must find a way to isolate the essential things to measure in human expression, and then get a total, integrated picture of what the music-maker is doing, rather than a disconnected series of parallel data streams. Take a string instrument. You could analyze it by saying, “My pinkie, when on the bow, has this kind of pressure, and at the same time my thumb is doing this and then each finger is kind of moving in an independent choreography, etc. At some point when you’re learning the violin, you do isolate each finger and the arm, but the reason the violin is so wonderful is it takes these many, many different motions and weights and activities that can all be integrated, are all coordinated. I mean, you’re moving this arm like this. At the point that you play the violin, the last thing you want to do is think about the arm separately. You learn little by little the way it feels to have all of these actions coordinated, and in some magical way — well it’s not so magical, it’s the way we do everything in the world — you think about everything together. You don’t think about the angle of your wrist and the pressure here and the speed there as being separate. You can’t think of them separately.

FRANK J. OTERI: It becomes second nature.

TOD MACHOVER: It’s not so much that it’s second nature. You’re doing probably 20 different things with your right hand, but you don’t think about them as 20 separate actions. You don’t think about each finger as a separate little instrument up here. One of the big problems with a lot of electronic instruments is that the easiest thing to do with electronics is to say, “Okay, I have a switch here, a switch here, a switch here, and so when I push this, I’m going to send information out to my computer, I’m going to have these 20 parameters, these 20 things, which are clear, because they’re physically separate places here. And I’m going to send them all out to my computer, and they’re each going to control some separate bit in the music or in the structure, and I’m going to give this to somebody, and you’re going to learn it by thinking, ‘Okay, this is loudness, and this is the range of my notes, and this is timbre…” And what I propose to you is that that doesn’t work. That doesn’t make a good instrument. The way to make a good instrument is to coordinate and correlate all these separate functions so that they add up to something integral, which is more than the sum of its parts. Of course you have to have separate functions, but just like a violin, I think the trick is to pick a number of things that you want to measure and to learn how to define and measure their interrelationships. There’s always a magic number around 10 or 15 things. If you’re trying to measure 100 different things on an instrument or that somebody’s doing in a performance, I think you’ve picked up too many insignificant things. That’s too many things to measure. And if you’re trying to measure them as being separate and disconnected, you’ve also thought about the problem incorrectly, I think. Because when somebody picks up an instrument, you don’t want it to literally feel like a violin, but you want somebody to forget about the interface and not worry about exactly where their fingers are going. I think the metaphor of touching something, squeezing something, having something which is simpler if you do something simple with it, something which is more complex if you manipulate in a complicated way — this is the more natural and productive way. You want some relationship between the way you feel when you play the instrument physically and the general way that the music is constructed. So even though it has to have separate controls, you want them to be interconnected — interdependent, we call it — in a very sophisticated way. So you want the number of things that you’re measuring to be not more than about 10. You want them to be just the right things. And you want them to be connected in a sophisticated way. And I think once you do that, you come up with something that feels good for a child or for an adult, and then you fine-tune it. Then the question is, as you’ve asked already, how much in the instrument is predetermined: Does it have scales already? Does it have fragments of music that I compose and put in there? Or is it more like a piano, where it has kind of certain possibilities but no particular direction?

FRANK J. OTERI: You give somebody sheet music to play the ball and there are notations for playing the ball. Do you have such things? Are there such things? Would they work? Could they work?

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, I think notation is an incredible problem. Its hard enough to learn what it feels like to manipulate one of these new instruments. To learn a new graphical system, to look at something related to what you’re doing physically, to remember it, it’s just a can of worms. We haven’t done much on that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is it even a valid question anymore? Do we need this? What happens when you’re not around and someone wants to perform a piece like this, say, in Marrakesh or somewhere in Russia?

TOD MACHOVER: I think it depends on the definition of the instrument. If you’re making an instrument — for instance, a fabric ball like this — that’s meant to play a fairly specific line of music for, let’s say, a chamber music piece that I’m writing, then you would have to come up with some kind of notation. It wouldn’t be enough to say, “This piece is 20 minutes long. Squeeze this thing any way you want to for 20 minutes, and something nice will happen.” That wouldn’t be precise enough. But that’s not usually the way I think of making music with something like the fabric ball. Generally, the way we’ve been thinking about such a radical instrument as this is not so much writing a score for it as trying to make it exploratory, to make it feel right, so that the instrument itself conveys the right information needed to make interesting music with it. If you think of it like a sound sculpture or a musical space, with a set of possibilities embedded in it that emerge depending on how you manipulate it, then playing it becomes more like conducting or shaping, like directing the computer through an interface like this. For this kind of activity, you don’t necessarily need a score, because everybody’s going to do play it, explore it, in a slightly different way. If you’re writing a piece for it, you clearly would need notation. And actually one of the big challenges for this Toy Symphony project is that we are making these music toys, we are inviting children to work with professionals as equals, and I’ll be writing a piece for this. We’ll also be commissioning young composers to write pieces for these music toys. We’ll be working with kids as well, so I think we’ll need to think about notations and ways of making things that can be reproduced. Over the next two years, we’ll clearly have to think of the notation issue. And that’s a real can of worms.

7. What Instrument Are You Wearing Today?

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about the Musical Jacket for a little bit. What’s the idea behind the jacket?

TOD MACHOVER: The Musical Jacket was the first stage of thinking about a musical interface or environment that would be so present that you wouldn’t even have to think of it as an instrument. It would just be around you all the time. So music that could be made through an article of clothing, music that could be made in a room, music that could be made through a piece of furniture. That led to the idea of an interface which was inexpensive, which could literally become part of your clothing. That’s when we invented this idea of thread that could measure the electricity in your fingers. We built this two years ago, the end of 1997, and, to be honest, when we first built it, it was literally a novelty. We said, “Okay, let’s see if we can do something inexpensive, part of clothing, that does something significant, that actually really does make music.” We worked with Levi-Strauss to put this together. So the big breakthrough was that the fabric worked. It led to these fabric balls, which right now I think are much more promising. It turns out that two years later, Levi-Strauss has come back to us with great interest in manufacturing these, saying, “Hmmm, MP3 on the Internet, you want to have some way of making your own music selections, you want to have that on you all the time, you want to have it updated all the time. Maybe a Musical Jacket is the perfect interface for asking for music from the Internet, accessing it when you want to, having it on your body so it’s kind of a personal trademark, playing or manipulating it at will…” So they actually want to make a whole series of these now that might not exactly be an instrument, but rather a tactile interface for downloading — or having downloaded — your own personal music. That wasn’t my idea; I wouldn’t call it the most interesting idea in the world…

Flora -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [90 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Bug-Mudra (1989-90)
David Starobin – acoustic guitar; Oren Fader – electric guitar;
Daniel Kennedy – acoustic & electronic percussion;
Tod Machover – conductor, data glove
from the CD Tod Machover: Flora
{Bridge BCD 9020; distributed by Koch International}
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FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a great idea. It’s a great convenience idea. But at the same time, it sort of makes me feel bad, because it’s sort of like, here you’ve created a new piano for people’s homes and now they’re coming along with a radio.

TOD MACHOVER: Right. My own sense is that if I really wanted an instrument, I don’t think I’d want to wear it. The only reason why you’d want something on your lapel that looks like this is as a sort of fun, social thing. When we built this two years ago, we found that, first of all, it was great fun to show it off. People also had a lot of fun going up and playing someone else’s lapel…It was great for social mixers…

FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s easier than lugging around a cello case.

TOD MACHOVER: I think, for instance, that it would be more interesting to have something on your sleeve, an ever-present interface to squeeze and touch… Maybe its because I’m a cellist, this idea of things that you can squeeze and touch… I can’t personally see any reason why I would want a piece of musical clothing right now. For now it’s such an oversimplification, with no real subtlety in the interface, gimmicky sound… You can imagine a little bit down the line that if you really had an interface that was delicate to the touch, a kind of note-sketch system or maybe even literally one that measured every expressive subtlety of movement. One of my students, for instance, just finished a PhD dissertation on a Conducting Jacket. The idea there is to have a combination of sensors sewn into a piece of clothing that you could put on that can actually measure your movements in a pretty sophisticated way. There are things that you can put in a piece of clothing that measure the tension in your arm or sweat or angle of movement, that can be interpreted in expressive ways with the right software. You wouldn’t have to worry about wiring yourself up – everything would be embedded in the clothing – and it would measure something pretty natural about your behavior for conducting or motioning. That turns out to be something that could be very sophisticated.

8. Elevator Music

FRANK J. OTERI: But once again, talking about this notion, you mentioned sweat and other things, those would be things that would be beyond someone’s own control. You wouldn’t be able to manipulate it the way you would, say, a piano or a clarinet. Involuntary body movements would cause certain sounds. This is one of the things that’s so interesting about the theremin. Unless you’re completely still, all these other sounds happen that you don’t want to have happen because you’re moving.

Flora -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [77 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Flora
Computer-generated tape based on the voice of Karol Bennett
from the CD Tod Machover: Flora
{Bridge BCD 9020; distributed by Koch International}
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TOD MACHOVER: Well, this is another very, very profound question for the next generation of work. So far we’ve talked about instruments that are designed for virtuosi. Something that somebody can really practice, play skillfully, learn to master, and thus have it expand what you can do with an instrument. We’ve talked about new interfaces that look completely different but which can still be controlled and manipulated. You want something that still has the same notion of control and a different kind of virtuosity. You want it to be sensitive; you want it to be fun to touch. When you start thinking about things that you wear or environments that respond to your movements or “feelings”… We talked a little while ago about composers designing pieces which invite a listener to explore them or to shape them, and the subversive sense of having listeners become familiar with your music while playing and exploring. But go a step further and think of a piece of music as not necessarily something which has a beginning and an end, which you must sit down either at home or at a concert to listen to, as something that is an active part of your environment. Glenn Gould, 30 years ago, wrote a famous article for High Fidelity magazine, where he said that — you know, Gould was even more perverse than I am — elevator music could be turned on its head to become the most wonderful, interactive, immersive ways of sensitizing the general public to the wonders of music. Elevator music is, you know, a dirty word for all of us.

FRANK J. OTERI: You can change the sonic environment. I know there’s a wonderful sound installation in a subway station in New York City, where you walk by it and it creates music. And if you put your hand in a certain place, it does a certain thing. You put your hand in another place… You mean that sort of thing?

TOD MACHOVER: Well, Gould had this idea that although elevator music is horrible now, because it’s designed for all the wrong reasons – to do mind and mood control – its ubiquity could be turned into a strong and positive feature. But he said, “Okay, what if we took this fact that music is piped all over the place, and people seem to want music around, and used it for brain stimulation instead of for brainwashing…” He thought of elevator music of the future as being a kind of ear training, where you’d actually be teaching people about intervals and relationships and musical structure through this environmental music. And then the next step would be a kind of elevator music that people could somehow shape and manipulate in their living rooms or at home. A composition that would come partially designed and partially needing your input. I actually think it’s a wonderful vision. His idealistic view was that through this kind of elevator music ear training, music would replace language and become our general form of communication, directly tapping into the emotions. The area in between elevator music and music composition is one of the most fruitful fields to explore right now. What happens when a piece of music is something that the public gets to participate in and is something which is kind of around you all the time. Maybe it’s around you because through your clothing you can call things up and shape it. Maybe it’s around you because your clothing or a special object allows you to give a kind of signal to the environment. Imagine if you had a great home theater set-up in your living room, and you had a CD or downloaded music with elements of a composition that you set up for somebody, and also had some rules which said that once you started it up it would recognize your gestures or it would recognize various controls, which would let you shape it, control it, call up parts of it, etc. An even bolder step would be to design sonic environments which respond in subtle ways to your presence and behavior without your conscious control, which would turn our current environmental noise pollution into something interesting, inviting, invigorating. I saw a great article in the Atlantic Monthly about a year ago, where somebody was talking about how horribly noisy all our machines are-our refrigerator, the air conditioner, and outside noise. All this uncontrolled noise, which is not interesting, terrible, not tuned, not controllable, not designed by anybody. So what if we thought of a kind of musical counterpoint to our everyday lives that you could turn it off if you wanted to, but otherwise would be a continuous, sonic counterpoint. Maybe you could take conscious control of if you wanted to. So if you picked up your conducting tool or if you had your squeezy ball, you could say, “Now I want to play with this, and I’m going to try to shape it.” But if you didn’t do that…

FRANK J. OTERI: There would still be something there.

TOD MACHOVER: Not only that, but it would be kind of paying attention to and adapting itself to what you were doing, how you were behaving. The sort of silly way to think about that is that it would be monkeying, mimicking, mirroring. With technology these days, you can imagine a system which would be playing this stuff, and if it sensed that you were kind of tired…

FRANK J. OTERI: Fade out.

TOD MACHOVER: Right, but a more interesting thing would be to design a kind of real counterpoint, so that it wouldn’t be obvious one way or another. It would have enough interesting features so that sometimes it might follow your behavior, but at others it might ignore or contradict you. Somebody like George Lewis, for instance, has spent his whole career figuring out how to make improvisational computer systems that improvise with other musicians and that have enough personality to it — I don’t want to call it smarts — but personality that it behaves with this kind of intelligent unpredictability that you’d expect from another person. It doesn’t just imitate what you’re playing; it doesn’t just do the opposite of what you’re doing, it kind of decides when it wants to listen, when it wants to stop, when it wants to surprise you, when it wants to irritate you, when to take something that you’ve done to vary or ornament or extend. Just like a really interesting musical partner would do. I think it would be very interesting to think of sonic environments, especially in homes…

FRANK J. OTERI: It would be sort of a new form of music minus one.

TOD MACHOVER: I think it would be an active music environment composition that could be played if you wanted to. But if you didn’t want to be interactive with it, it would be a kind of accompaniment to your everyday life or something like that. It brings up the question of the difference between conscious control and the whole field, which is opening up now, of being able to measure unconscious things that people are doing. There’s a whole field of research that’s developing at the Media Lab now called affective computing, which basically means measuring things that people do that they’re not aware of. Most of the ways that we express ourselves — through hand gestures, through facial expressions, through body language, whatever — are things that we’re not consciously aware of… I mean, they’re things that we feel, but we’re not aware of doing. We’re not conducting, we’re not performing. But they’re very central to who we are and how we project. And computers are starting to be able to measure some of those things, and it brings up enormous ethical, moral and creative questions about what to do, how to use that information? We talk about hyperinstruments that allow somebody to play a cello and then amplify their musicality so that it’s not just a cello sound but many other sounds and musical that are under your control. But we could make something that sort of makes up your theme music and then amplifies emotions that maybe you don’t want other people to know about.

FRANK J. OTERI: And then all of a sudden it could become too personal…

TOD MACHOVER: Right, clearly that’s an invasive, embarrassing thing. I think in a home situation, where you’re alone, its one thing, but in public… This is a very, very rich creative area, where we can take people’s everyday behavior, not necessarily musical behavior, and combine it with a very sensitive, interactive musical environment, which will integrate with something that you’ve put in as a composition, something that I’m consciously controlling, something that I’m not paying attention to — all of this together will create a musical experience which I think will be informative, surprising, and really new. I think nobody’s done this yet, and I think will blossom over the next 10 to 20 years.

9. Opera

Valis -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [75 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: “Fat’s Sacrament” from Valis (1987)
Patrick Mason – baritone
Emma Stephenson – keyboards
Daniel Ciampolini – percussion
Tod Machover – conductor
{Bridge BCD 9007; distributed by Koch International}
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FRANK J. OTERI: So for the loaded question, we’ve talked about these things that blur the roles between composer, performer, and audience. You’re a composer. You write works for performers that are then heard by audiences. In fact, you write operas. And there’s a very clear delineation between: you, the composer; the performers who perform it, who sing in it; and the audience who hears it. An opera is an old-fashioned musical format. Why opera?

TOD MACHOVER: Well, okay, I think there are two sides to that answer. One is that, at least for myself, I guess one of my goals for the rest of my career is to find a perfect form that combines all of the different things I’m interested in and all of the different relationships between performers and composer and public, but so far I approach different projects in different ways. There are different things that I’m interested in, which aren’t necessarily collapsible into one form, and I’ve always been perversely attracted to finding, or establishing, unity between musical materials and forms of expression that seem very divergent. Just as before we discussed that there are different ways of defining an instrument of the future, depending on who’s going to play it and what they’re going to use it for, I think the same is true of different kinds of pieces that I like to work on and different ways that you want people to listen to them. In the past three years, I composed a Brain Opera, and I also composed the opera Resurrection for the Houston Grand Opera, and they are about as different as two works can be, although in my view they are both “opera” and they are definitely both “my music.”… Brain Opera is an extreme case in trying to make something where the public gets to help shape it, manipulate it. I gave away more control than I usually do in that project. Resurrection is probably the most traditional piece I’ve composed in a long time, with a story based on Tolstoy’s last novel, and a lyrical, dramatic score. As you say it’s designed for people to listen to and to follow. Hopefully, they’re not going to move around; they’re going to sit in their seats from the beginning to the end, following the music and the story.

FRANK J. OTERI: And a score.

TOD MACHOVER: And a score. You know, it’s for solo singers (the first time I’ve used an entire cast of opera-trained singers), orchestra and chorus. It does have a large electronic part, but one of my goals for Resurrection was to make the technology sophisticated enough that people wouldn’t notice it, that it would add to the texture, add to the impact, add to the whole effect of the opera but wouldn’t draw attention to itself. Partly, I didn’t want people to go away from Resurrection talking first about the technology and third about the music. And also I wanted the whole sound world — I mentioned it before — to be a new kind of blend between acoustic and electric; I didn’t want it to end up sounding “electronic”… This is still very hard to achieve, but is one of the main directions I’m moving in… Just today there was yet another article — today it was in the New York Times — about the use of amplification in orchestral and operatic settings. It’s interesting: Ever since City Opera announced that it’s going to experiment with amplification…

FRANK J. OTERI: The critics are all horror struck about this.

TOD MACHOVER: Not only that, but now it’s like. . . I don’t know if you saw Tommasini’s article today, but it turns out that there are about 20 different opera houses around the country who’ve already put in amplification systems. It’s like a dirty little secret. It’s all coming up now how many people have experimented with amplification or enhancement, whatever you call it. I keep coming back to opera because I think that one of the things that ties together all of my work is a desire to create music that is about human issues that I consider significant. Not as ideas; I mean I’m in music because it is the way that I’m most skilled at expressing things about being alive and what it all means. I’ve always felt that I’m not in music to make music about other music, or that comments on musical language or musical colleagues. I think as much as I can about musical form and musical language, of course, but I do that in service of the final expression. And finally the same with technology. I’m incredibly interested in building and making new technology, but at the end of the day it’s all so that it can get me closer to what I want to express and communicate. And for me, the most complete and satisfying way to do this is through opera in all of its different forms, including wacky forms like Brain Opera that I try to make up from scratch. I love the idea of music which also has some thematic concern. I don’t want to say “story,” because Brain Opera didn’t have a story. It doesn’t have to have a story. I like combining the abstract and emotional qualities of music with something that grounds the experience in a specific context. I like to find a balance between not having things be so programmatic that they become simplistic, but not so open that you don’t have any idea what the issues are. And opera is a wonderful way to explore many different ways of doing that. The great thing about opera is that, unlike film, the musical experience should be at the center of it. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved spinning melodies; I do that all the time now with my two young daughters.

10. An Early Electronic Instrument Movement?

FRANK J. OTERI: Is there room then to still write string quartets and piano sonatas?

TOD MACHOVER: I’m writing a piano trio right now.

FRANK J. OTERI: No electronics?

TOD MACHOVER: Probably no electronics. While working on the piece, I admit that I keep thinking to myself how neat it would be to extend the sound world, or the counterpoint, or the ornamentation through magical technology. You know going back to 20 years ago, the reason I got into this whole field in the first place, is that whenever I come up with some fantastic structure or idea or sound, something really unusual, I know how to shape my technology to make it happen — that ability seems to be part of my creative imagination. But I think I’ll be able to restrain myself, and stay within the limits of the piano trio. There is great power within these limits, too, of course.

FRANK J. OTERI: So the last question then, getting to this notion of how to keep this repertoire alive. You know, you’re writing for instruments now, well, people were writing for the violin in the 18th century, and certainly the period instrument movement has taught us that instruments have changed over the past two centuries, but people are playing slightly different instruments, the same music. How do you write music now for, say, a Yamaha DX7 and 30 years from now there are no Yamaha DX7s around? How do you keep this music alive? Will there be a period instrument movement one day that’ll bring back the Arp 2600?

Flora -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [51 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Towards the Center (1988-89)
for 6 instruments and live computer electronics
New York New Music Ensemble:
Jayn Rosenfeld – flute; Jean Kopperud – clarinet; Linda Quan – violin; Chris Finckel – cello; Elizabeth DiFelice – electronic keyboard; Daniel Druckman – electronic percussion; Conducted by Robert Black
from the CD Tod Machover: Flora
{Bridge BCD 9020; distributed by Koch International}
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TOD MACHOVER: To be honest, I think there just is no simple answer to that question. Even when writing for MIDI and existing commercial instruments, it’s true that already we’re finding that’s its not even simple to perform some of my music written less than 10 years ago that uses certain Yamaha instruments that aren’t manufactured anymore, that are hard to find. So we’re already coming into a period where some of the commercial electronic instruments are hard to come upon. My own feeling is that anything that was commercially manufactured is likely to be brought back to life through an early electronic music movement, or to become standard or “classic” technology, or to be fairly easily transferred from an old model to a newer one, as is usually possible with computer software.

FRANK J. OTERI: Take the timbres, take the…

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, it’s not that hard to do. I think that’ll be possible. I think what’s harder is when you’re really on the cutting edge, like we are and a bunch of other people are, when you’re making non-commercial instruments and interfaces; that’s really a problem these days. My guess is that for the next while, I don’t know if that’s 10 years, 20 years or 50 years, I think there’s likely to be a certain amount of work — including a certain amount of my creative time — to develop the most idealistic, most interesting, most expressive, most unusual, most artistically appropriate technology for a particular project. We’re just going to stick our necks out and build it just because we believe in it. And I think it’s very possible that some of those things will disappear and that’s just a risk. The fabric ball, or let’s say the Brain Opera instruments might be in this category. I think the Brain Opera instruments were a perfect case of… You know, I invested a good two years of my life into creating those, and we’re designing a version of them now that are – thankfully — going to be permanently installed in Vienna. But they’re not going to be commercially manufactured or available to the general public to own and use at home.

FRANK J. OTERI: But the Brain Opera is not a piece that’s specifically designed to be a repertoire piece. Say as opposed to a piece like Towards the Center, a work of yours from 10 years ago. I can envision that being played by groups without you around all around the world, if they have the equipment.

Angels -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [51 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from The Angel of Death
Christophe Morin – cello;
The Boston Camerata conducted by Joel Cohen
from the CD Joel Cohen & Tod Machover: Angels: Voices from Eternity

{Erato CD 14773-2; distributed by Warner-Elektra-Atlantic}
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TOD MACHOVER: Right. Towards the Center was composed in 1989, and uses commercial interface and synthesis hardware, a Macintosh computer, and specially written hyperinstrument software. In principle, it is fairly easy to perform and reproduce. However, even with that piece, it isn’t totally simple: the software doesn’t run on current Macintoshes, so has to updated; there are a couple of Yamaha instruments used which now you can only find in the back rooms of the Internet; the company that made the percussion controller for that piece no longer exists, etc. So that’s in the category of things that have to be updated in order to be done; but at least it can be done. My feeling is that the most fruitful way to think of the next period that it’s really very important for artists, like myself a lot of other people in the field, to continue sticking their necks out to think of the most idealistic, creative, far-reaching things that we can do with this technology artistically and in terms of instruments because it’s just the beginning of this field; if we don’t define the future of expressive music technology, the music and computer companies will do it for us. There are so many things we can do that are better than what have been done so far that we just can’t afford to stop this development. The truth is that in continuing this pioneering work, we’re likely to have some instruments and pieces and projects that survive, and some that won’t. Some will be quirky instruments that will end up in museums, rather than in concert halls. It’s very hard to tell. But I really think that it’s important to keep moving forward, because there’s so much more work to be done, and we don’t know where the great ideas are going to come up. It’s just too early to standardize the field. At the same time, one thing that hasn’t happened yet, which I really hope that a lot of us can help to bring about. I think the American Music Center has a role in this, I think that organizations that don’t exist yet have a role… I think that it’s very important for a lot of performing arts organizations to start taking technology seriously and to start working with composers and with research centers, like the Media Lab, like Stanford, or even smaller composers’ groups, to start figuring out a kind of standard for the use of advanced technology in performing situations. There aren’t even people thinking about what should be standard in concert halls. People are building concert halls around the world that have no technology in them at all, or that basically variations on 19th century models. Maybe they have sound enhancement; as we discussed above, it’s a big issue these days that we’re going to amplify concerts. Big deal. That’s nothing. There’s no thought as to instruments, computers, interfaces, interactive setups that should be in concert halls of the future, to say nothing of ways that technology should be integrated into opera, music-theatre and other mixed forms. There’s no thought about new kinds of concert halls. There’s really nothing these days between proscenium stages and black boxes. Black boxes are being still built all over. Black boxes are basically abdicating responsibility. People say, “Okay, we’re going to give you a hall to try experiments in that’s going to be a rectangle that has nothing in it. It has no seats; it has no speakers. And you can do anything you want.” But that doesn’t work either, and these black boxes never get used every time you want to do something you basically have to build an entire theater inside this neutral space. So I think there’s an important process that has to happen, starting as soon as possible, with performing organizations and research organizations and technology manufacturers and some people in the entertainment industry to start working together to figure out interactive/electronic/acoustic combination performance standards for the next generation. And this has to include brainstorming about both artistic visions and, unfortunately, new ways of funding and supporting this work. It’s going to take a new kind of partnership that just doesn’t exist yet. And if we don’t have that, I think the acoustic performing organizations and the entertainment world and the technology industries and what composers really want to do are going to continue diverging in four different directions. And I think the people who are going to suffer the traditional performing arts organizations; they will wake up 20 years from now and realize that a hybrid, media arts culture has developed and has been co-opted by the entertainment industry. Well, everybody’s going to suffer if we can’t organize a fundamentally new kind of coalition. Because I think that composers will not be willing to invest enough time and effort in technology and interaction and live performance if they feel that their work has no chance of entering any repertoire; The orchestras and chamber music societies and operas, for that matter, are going to find that it continues to be too expensive to do works involving really interesting technology because there’s no standard, and equipment is too expensive to assemble and too difficult to manipulate. And the entertainment industry will be impoverished, as today’s Stockhausens and Schoenbergs fail to have the fundamental confrontations with the best popular artists that led to the great pop music of the 60’s or great movie music of the 30’s. So this is one of the things that I intend to spend a lot of my time doing in the next three to five years, figuring out how to get these different groups of people to talk to each other and realize that we have to work together to make this kind of standardization, dialogue, and creative confrontation happen. Otherwise, this field won’t really develop in the right way.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow, we could talk for 10 hours I think, and not even begin to scratch the surface.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, thank you. I hope it wasn’t too random.

TodMachover

Tod Machover is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of his generation, and has been highly praised for music that boldly breaks traditional artistic and cultural boundaries, offering a unique and innovative synthesis of acoustic and electronic sound, of symphony orchestras and interactive computers, of operatic arias and rock songs, and consistently delivering serious and powerful messages in an accessible and immediate way. As critic Lloyd Schwartz has recently written: “What’s most exciting about Machover’s pieces in general is how beautiful and moving they are, what lyrical and exotic melismas keep surfacing (and how scintillatingly they contrast with the shattering electronic textures), how dramatically they build, how they haven’t a dull moment, and what magnificent opportunities for performers they provide.”

After receiving degrees from the Juilliard School in New York where he studied with Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, Machover was Director of Musical Research at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM institute in Paris (1978-85). Since 1985, he has been Professor of Music & Media, Head of the Opera of the Future/Hyperinstruments Group, and, since 1995, Co-Director of the Things That Think (TTT) and Toys of Tomorrow (TOT) consortia at M.I.T.’s Media Lab. Machover’s music has been performed and commissioned by the world’s most important performers and ensembles, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the London Sinfonietta, the Ensemble InterContemporain (Paris), the Ensemble Modern (Frankfurt), the Tokyo String Quartet, the Kronos Quartet, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. His work has received many international prizes and awards, from such organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts, the French Culture Ministry, the Koussevitzky Foundation of the Library of Congress, the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University, and the Reader’s Digest/Lila Acheson Wallace Foundation. In 1995, Machover was named a “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” one of France’s highest cultural honors, and in 1998 he was awarded Germany’s first DigiGlobe Prize for “creativity and innovation in interactive media.” Also in 1998, his Angels CD (Erato Disques) was nominated for a National Public Radio “Performance Today” Award, “for introducing new audiences to classical music.”

In addition to Resurrection, Machover’s theatrical works include his opera, VALIS, composed for the 10th anniversary of Paris’ Centre Pompidou, and Media/Medium, for magicians Penn & Teller. In addition to his work as a composer, Machover is widely noted as a designer of new technology for music. He is the inventor of hyperinstruments, which use smart computers to augment musicality, virtuosity, and creativity. Performers as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Prince and Peter Gabriel have used these hyperinstruments. Since 1991, Machover has adapted his hyperinstruments for use by musical amateurs, students, and children, culminating in his Brain Opera, which invites the public to participate in each performance, live or via the Internet. The Brain Opera premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York in 1996, before touring in North America, Europe, and Asia. It is currently being updated and improved, and the final version — with an additional “Future Music Blender” — will be permanently installed next year in Vienna, Austria, at the new “House of Music.” In 1998, Machover collaborated on the design of the underground Meteorite Museum in Essen, Germany, creating a series of interactive spaces and composing a walk-through opera, Meteor Music.

Future projects include a new opera, Twelve Looney Tones: Schoenberg in Hollywood (which explores the relationship between high and pop culture), the Toy Symphony (which will introduce specially designed Music Toys for a creative collaboration between children and symphony orchestras in ten different cities), and various large-scale interactive works for museums, arts centers, and public spaces around the world.