A Glimpse at Music from Beyond the Singularity

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Tod Machover is one of the strangest composers alive today. While many are content to continue the grand classical tradition of string quartets and symphonies, and others have retreated into the world of purely digital instruments and programs, Mr. Machover has pioneered a unique intersection of electronic and acoustic music across a complex landscape of shifting idioms and textures. His latest landmark achievement was the opera Death and the Powers, which tackles the role of humanity post-Singularity head-on. After the protagonist uploads his consciousness onto a computer, robots take to the stage, performing alongside their human counterparts like it's no big deal. (Note: it is.) 

Another key innovation along the same line is the hyperinstrument, an instrument that collects data from its performer in realtime, which allows for greater expressive possibilities. If you've never heard of hyperinstruments, developed in conjunction with the M.I.T Media Lab, perhaps you've heard of one of its mildly popular offspring, Guitar Hero. Yes? Maybe? As you can probably tell, Machover's work blurs the distinctions between musical composition, pure technological innovation, and advances in the resources for creating and experiencing music.

These days, he's hard at work producing his newest offering, an album entitled ...but not simpler... and he's raising the funds right here on Kickstarter. The album is about as close a return to traditional instrumentation as we're going to get. The pieces range from an orchestral piece involving hyperpiano and video (Jeux Deux) to a few pieces fully composed and recorded in his home studio. I think we can all agree that the clip (at the end of the project video) of a hyperpiano allowing the pianist to play all octaves at the same time is insane. Alternately, if you're immune to raw awesomeness, it might be time to listen for the tone clusters based on Gaussian distributions

Still with me here? Watch the video, read the interview. But be sure to read it in one of those hair-salon dryers that covers your whole head so you can account for all parts of your newly-blown mind when it's all said and done.

Having spent most of your more recent time with Operabots, how does it feel to return to working with carbon-based musicians?

Much as I love our Operabots, I love people more. In fact, all of the work I have done with music technology over the years has been an attempt to enhance and expand human expression and creativity, not to diminish it. And while the Operabots we designed for Death and the Powers are really cool on stage — and quirkily expressive too — they don't have minds, and certainly not intentions, of their own. Everything they do is programmed by us and controlled by us. Even if they have the ability to improvise from time to time, the limits of that improvisation also need to be planned in advance. For what does it mean for an Operabot to want to do this thing rather than another? The question is nonsensical. And that's the whole difference between machines and humans. For better or worse, we humans have an entire — and even a prehistory thanks to our genes — of experience and evaluation and preference. It matters to us most deeply whether we do one thing or another, as well as how we do it. 

So when I get together with a group of performing musicians, it is one of life's great experiences to know that each player not only cares about what they are playing and how they are playing it, but can also interpret and shape the music according to my instructions while also bringing something entirely new and fresh to the experience. In this way, the music ends up sounding like what I imagined in my mind, but even better! Another special pleasure about working on this particular CD is that many of the players are quite young and have grown up with my music or music like it. Everything I put in front of them made perfect sense to them, and they dove right in, playing every melody, rhythm and sonority with relative ease and consummate artistry, allowing my quirky, demanding music to sound - well - perfectly natural. I think that listeners to this CD will sense immediately the passion and commitment of all the players, and the collaboration with them has truly been one of the greatest joys for me in putting all of this music together for you to hear.

Tod embraces an operabot
Tod embraces an operabot

Extending your love of the 4 B’s, how would you describe your music to Bieber fans?

Hilarious! Since my own 4 B's are a bit eclectic and unusual as a grouping - Bach, Beethoven, William Byrd and The Beatles - reaching out to Bieber fans should not be that difficult. My music is all based on melodies, and they're all over the place, sometimes peeking out from complex textures and other times pounding in the bass, but always there to hold the music together and push it forward. My music also has real rhythmic vitality, although the pulses change quite often. I don't do this to be perverse (I don't think:), but because the melodies I write are closer to natural speech than to rhymes or rap, and I want the music to follow. My music is also very dramatic - with and without words - and doesn't just tell stories but grabs you and takes you on a journey. So if you let yourself go and hang on to one of my melodies, you might be surprised by the adventure and by how much terrain we'll cover before bringing you back home.

The last hundred years of classical music have been tumultuous to say the least. As a pioneer in both music and technology, what do you envision for the next hundred years?

The three biggest changes in classical music over the next hundred years - all enabled through technology innovations - will be the complete redefinition of "classical" music as a genre, the reintegration of professionals and amateurs in a healthier and more dynamic ecology, and the establishment of "personal music" that can adapt to each of our ears and desires. 

In brief, we are experiencing a very healthy collapsing of boundaries between different genres of music, with rap elements found in string quartets and Peter Gabriel touring with an orchestra but no guitars or drums. We hear so much different music in close proximity that there is a great opportunity to integrate all instruments, all genres, and all cultures in richer musical languages. 

This can lead to chaos or mediocrity, but it can also lead to expressive power and rich resources in the hands of composers with a genius for synthesis, like Bach. I would not be surprised if another Bach will arrive over the coming period. Technology enables non-professionals to touch music (Guitar Hero) or manipulate music, and I think we have only seen the very beginning of this trend. At the very least, more sensitive and enlightened listeners will develop over the coming period due to the invitation to - and technologies for - actively participating in shaping and creating music themselves. 

Lastly, our growing knowledge of the science of musical emotion will gradually allow us to fine-tune musical experiences for each individual based on our background, but also shaped for maximum impact and benefit at a particular moment. This will lead to the opposite of generic hooks that appeal to millions, establishing "personal hooks" that will resonate powerfully for each of us, going beyond current music preference matching systems to provide "music that we didn't know we needed."

How long has ...but not simpler... been a work in progress? Was there a specific point at which you know that these pieces would form an album, or did they begin to cluster together after the fact?

...but not simpler... took a little longer to realize as a CD than I had imagined. We started discussing the CD in 2005, right after the premiere of my piece Jeux Deux at the Boston Pops, and we started the recording sessions in 2009, after we had raised the core funding and decided on the content of the CD. Most of the delay was due to the fact that I have been very busy with creating major operas during this period -Skellig in 2008 and Death and the Powers in 2010 - and these took a lot of my time and effort. 

Early on in the project, we knew that this CD would be structured around two major works for orchestra and electronics (Sparkler and Jeux Deux), and it was natural to cluster them with a constellation of string quartet works, with ...but not simpler... at the core. All of these pieces have much in common in terms of their shape, textures and "personality", although there is just the right amount of contrast, I think, to make a satisfying album. 

About a year ago, I had the idea of connecting the album with two specially-composed "Interludes" that are kinds of free musical spaces where sounds and ideas are twisted and turned, time is stretched, and the impact of what one has just heard might be digested and also transmogrified to prepare for what comes next. Creating and adapting these "Interludes" was the final creative act in preparing the CD, and I think their presence really turns this into a true album experience.

How involved were you with rehearsals and recording? Were there any late-night changes made to your score after first rehearsal?

I was quite intensively involved with every stage of the rehearsals and recording. Luckily, all the pieces recorded had already been performed in public multiple times, so I had previously gone through the process of trimming and enhancing as needed. In particular, I changed the entire ending of Jeux Deux after the first series of Boston Pops performances, since my original orchestral writing was too tricky to play at the tempo I desired. The new version - which we also got to test with the Pops - simplifies the rhythms, especially in the brass, but actually ends up making it all sound wilder and more on-the-edge (which it really is). 

I made similar changes in ...but not simpler... after the work was first premiered, also to enhance the impression of complexity while actually simplifying some of the string quartet rhythms and playing techniques. With Sparkler there was a different kind of change to be made. The interactive electronics were designed to respond sensitively and immediately in performance to the entire orchestra, quite a technical trick. For the recording, my task was to recreate the excitement of this live interaction when the orchestra and conductor could not be viewed. To do this, I worked extensively in my home studio to enhance the electronic part and to emphasize the back-and-forth between electronics and acoustics. 

Besides the time spent with all the musicians playing on this CD, to get the performances just right, I also spent many many hours in my studio adjusting balances, tweaking MIDI data so the electronic parts were just right, editing multiple takes to get just the right continuity, and playing with the special blended sonorities that I like so much and have become a trademark of my music. 

One of the paradoxes of this particular CD is that although I have spent so much of my career developing the hyperinstruments and interactive electronics that allow this music to be performed and interpreted live in concert, it is a special pleasure to be able to tweak and tune every detail in the studio so that result is precisely the way I imagined it, providing a record (literally) for all to hear and study in the future.


What’s your favorite hyperinstrument? What do hyperinstruments allow artistically that musicians wouldn’t be able to accomplish otherwise?

Being a cellist myself, I think I am partial to our hypercello, not necessarily the original one we designed for Yo-Yo Ma 20 years ago, but the most recent version built last year for my piece Spheres and Splinters. We used a regular acoustic cello and a special hyperbow, adapted special "disembodied performance" software developed for my Death and the Powers opera, and connected the hypercello to a massive surround audio system and a cylindrical formation of LED light towers designed by Ash Nehru of United Visual Artists. The resulting instrument allowed me - or young UK cellist Peter Gregson - to morph the cello sound, fracture or congeal complex textures, and shape a magnificent lighting installation all through subtle changes to cello gesture, touch and timbre. Magical. 

One of my other favorite hyperinstruments was the Singing Tree installation that we designed for my Brain Opera project in 1996/7. This was a public installation that invited anyone to sign whatever they wanted into a microphone - with no instructions whatsoever - and to listen to the music that was added. The trick was that the "aura" created by the hyper-system became more and more beautiful as one's singing became calmer and more controlled, like a meditation. If one could sing with perfectly even tone and no vibrato or phlegm, the reward was an luscious envelope of harmonious, pulsating sonorities that further enhanced the joyous, satisfying mood. I liked this hyperinstrument so much that I am currently working with one of my Media Lab grad students, Elly Jessop, to build a new singing-based interactive system we are calling "Voice Vibrations". Our hope is that the resultant experience will not only be beautiful and enjoyable, but will also provide positive benefits to mind and body, measurable through a variety of new techniques we are developing. Stay tuned for a rollout in 2012!

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