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Knowledge Base Article: KB1968
Topic: FAQ - Composer and Producer Issues

Title: Technology and Music Instruments in the Future, "On Future Performance" - by Tod Machover


Last Reviewed: Apr 21, 2012
Keywords: education good compositions future instruments high tech music inventions vs acoustic instruments

January 13, 2010, 9:34 PM

On Future Performance


Composing is what I love to do most. It is what best combines my various skills and interests — imagination, reflection, organization and the desire to communicate my thoughts and emotions to anyone who will listen. I also love solitude: I do my creative work in an 18th-century barn on our farm near Boston, where I can pursue my ideas without the need to explain or translate until all is ripe and ready. So it may seem like a paradox that another large chunk of my life is spent in one of the world’s most futuristic, collaborative and intensive centers of technological invention — the The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. But the attractions and complexities of merging these worlds are central to how and why I work, and grow from seeds planted when I was very young.

My mom is a Juilliard-trained pianist and a remarkable pedagogue and my dad is one of the pioneers of computer graphics, but it actually took me a while to start combining these fields. I grew up as a cellist, first playing solo Bach, then chamber music (I never particularly enjoyed playing in orchestras), and then, by high school, original composed or improvised music using a wired (or is that “weird”?) transformed rock cello that I created by placing large headphones around the cello for amplification, then sending the sound through tape recorder loops and analog transformation processes.

The appearance of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” had changed my life: it suggested a music that ideally balanced complexity and directness. There was a downside, though: as a product of the recording studio, most of the Beatles’ music after 1967 couldn’t actually be played live. That’s when I started imagining a performance mode that would combine the physicality and intimacy of solo cello and the unhinged creativity of the recording studio. I was driven by the urge to bring this strange, enticing and intricate music filling my head out through my arms and fingers and into the world.
 
This desire compelled me not only to compose the music I was imagining, but also to invent new instruments and new modes of playing them, something that I never thought as a kid that I’d end up doing. So along with my colleagues and students at the M.I.T. Media Lab I’ve designed hypercellos for Yo-Yo Ma and Matt Haimovitz, a Brain Opera to allow audiences to share in the creation of each performance, a Toy Symphony to induce children to fall in love with music using Music Toys that open doors to collaboration with top-level virtuosi, and composing software — Hyperscore — for enhancing music education and enabling music-modulated-health.
 
Inventions like these have been part of a trend that has yielded amazing developments over the past 10 years. Technology has democratized music in ways that are surprising even to me, revolutionizing access to any music anytime with iPod and iTunes, opening interactive musicmaking to amateurs with Guitar Hero and Rock Band (which both grew out of a group I lead at the M.I.T. Media Lab), providing digital production and recording facilities on any laptop that surpass what the Beatles used at Abbey Road, and redefining the performance ensemble with initiatives like the Stanford iPhone Orchestra and YouTube Symphony.
 
In fact, at the start of 2010 one wonders whether there is any more music technology to invent, or whether our musical imaginations and artistic cultures simply need to catch up. The answer is both, and then some.
 
For the first time in my career, I feel as if there are enough tools on my laptop, enough brilliant and inventive playing chops amongst the younger generation of performers, enough ooomph in the iPhone, and increasing openness and entrepreneurship in musical organizations both large and small to stimulate my imagination and allow for the production and dissemination of my somewhat unusual creations.
 
But even though these evolving music technologies are already very powerful and increasingly ubiquitous, we can also see their current limitations and potential risks. Guitar Hero is rhythmically exciting but not yet expressive or creative enough — a “sticky” but not “open-ended” experience that does not obviously lead to better musicality, listening or ensemble awareness. The iPhone is a remarkable little chameleon but lacks the touch and sensitivity of even the simplest traditional instrument, better for selecting and switching than for subtly shaping. Amplified sound is loudly present and “surrounds” us ever more, but still emphasizes the boom box aspect rather than the “still small voice.” And there isn’t yet a performance measurement system that could come close to interpreting the exuberance, range and immediacy of someone like Gustavo Dudamel or truly enhancing the experience of an “unplugged” symphony orchestra.
 
As a composer, I find that each new piece I undertake suggests exciting but daunting technological challenges; my imagination just seems to be wired that way. My current project, the opera “Death and the Powers,” is one example.
 
I had been invited to imagine a new (and unusual) opera by the Opera of Monte Carlo, and two fundamental impressions came to mind early on. The first came from thoughts about mortality and how difficult it is to sum up one’s life in a way that can be shared and transmitted to loved ones through generations, and how music has a particularly powerful capacity for collecting and concentrating multiple experiences, then burning them indelibly into our memories. And I started imagining that this web of musical memories — the embodiment of an entire life — needed to transcend traditional notes and instruments, jump off the stage and physically envelope the listener, both aurally and visually. This turned into a mental impression of floating, undulating, palpable 3-D sounds represented visually through slowly moving, morphing objects filling a stage — like “Fantasia” become physical (but with my music and without dancing elephants). I felt the need to go beyond the flatness and harshness of usual multimedia tools to create something that was at the same time transcendent and magical but also completely human and down-to-earth.
 
I then sought out collaborators — the poet Robert Pinsky and the playwright Randy Weiner — to turn these initial impressions into an opera, a form that has long attracted me for its use of word and image to ground music’s abstract qualities in concrete human experience. Together we crafted a story about a man who longs to leave the world in order to pass to a higher level of existence, but wants everything about himself — his memories, his ability to influence others, his contact with those he loves, his legacy — to remain behind.
 
This story evolved into a full opera libretto in which the main character, named Simon Powers, switches on The System at the end of Scene 1: he becomes embodied more and more in his surroundings, forcing those left behind to decide how to communicate with him or it, whether to follow, and what part of his legacy to retain or reject. The stage itself becomes the main character in the opera, taking over from — and extending — the physical presence of the singer. Realizing this vision has been a daunting challenge, but happily, with the collaboration of the director Diane Paulus, the designer Alex McDowell, the choreographer Karole Armitage and my group at the M.I.T. Media Lab, we are in the process of designing sighing walls, morphing furniture, gliding robots and even a resonating chandelier to create The System on stage — and to make it “sing.”
 
In helping to tell this story and to sonify the score, all aspects of this physical set translate and amplify Simon Powers’ human presence, challenging the current limits of our ability to measure and interpret all the subtleties of a great performance. The techniques currently being developed are already yielding surprising results, turning elegantly refined gestures, barely perceptible touch, and the gentlest breath into sounds, shapes and movements that convey personality and feeling without looking or sounding exactly like a human being. It is a new kind of instrument, and we are just learning how to play it.
 
Hopefully, these developments will lead to musical possibilities down the line that I can’t predict right now, just as software and hardware designed to measure Yo-Yo Ma’s bowing led — in a slightly zigzag way — to Guitar Hero. I would not be surprised, for example, if the sophisticated infrastructure that Simon Powers will use to construct and communicate his legacy when “Powers” premieres next September in Monaco were eventually to morph into a platform for creating and sharing musical stories — a kind of “personal opera” — on, well, your iPhone.
 
In fact, I think that it is precisely this kind of surprising freshness that technology can allow — through what can be precisely customized for each project and through the unexpected new discoveries that each project seems to require or reveal — that remains one of its continuing attractions for me.
 
But we can’t take such freshness for granted. Musical technology is so ever-present in our culture, and we are all so very aware of it, that techno-clichés and techno-banalities are never far away and have become ever more difficult to identify and root out. It is deceptively challenging these days to apply technology to music in ways that explode our imaginations, deepen our personal insights, shake us out of boring routine and accepted belief, and pull us ever closer to one another.
 
That’s what makes this kind of work worthwhile and inspires me. But it also leads to a paradox that I experience every single day: that the desire to shape the future is not perfectly compatible with the knowledge that musical experience — and its power to excite and transform us — is fleeting, here and now, in this very moment. And that we’d be extremely fortunate indeed to create new sounds and instruments and technologies that approach the compact, powerful perfection of playing, listening to or imagining Bach emanating from a solo cello.
 
So what do you think? Can music made by technological processes ever match the beauty and impact of a skilled performance on a traditional instrument? Will an iPhone or its descendents allow us to enhance our musical imaginations while merging with our bodies, becoming — literally — second nature as we create and communicate our deepest thoughts and feelings through sound?
 
____________________________________________________________
 
Tod Machover is a composer and inventor, known for developing new technologies for music and performance. He is professor of Music and Media at the M.I.T. Media Lab and is currently finishing a CD of recent music for string quartet, orchestra and electronics, to be released this spring on the Bridge label. His Web site is todmachover.com

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