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