Classical Music

An Interview with Tod Machover, the World's Most Wired Composer

Tod Machover is half composer, half mad-scientist. Equally at home writing elegant code and composing operas, Machover has spent his career at the intersection of music and technology. He looks the part, too. With wire-rimmed glasses and wild, curly hair, it's easy to picture him at home in Cambridge, at the MIT Media Lab where he has served as Professor of Music and Media since 1985.

See also: A Noob's Guide to Going to the Symphony in Dallas

Machover was in Dallas this week, appearing on the panel of The Dallas Opera's discussion series, "Composing Conversations." I sat down with him Tuesday morning in the offices of the Winspear Opera House. Among other things, we talked about one of his most famous technological inventions, the hyperinstrument:

How did you come up with the idea for a hyperinstrument? My interest in that started from being a cellist. I had the feel of the physicality of that instrument, but I was also aware of the limits of what a single performer can do. I also grew up with music and technology. My mom is a very creative piano teacher and my dad was one of the people who started the field of computer graphics.

So you felt limited by a acoustic instruments? Yes, I guess in some ways I did. When I was in high school I started wiring my cello and playing in rock bands. Then, at Juilliard, I became interested in musical complexity. I was imagining lots of things that weren't that possible to do with traditional instruments. I had this intuition that the greatest thing about technology is that it's a malleable medium. You can invent it to follow your imagination no matter what you need.

One of the sad things about technology now is that it's such a big industry and there are so many commercial things available that a lot of kids grow up thinking, "Oh, that software package is there for me if I need it." A lot of people use technology is a tool. But the great thing about technology is that you can still keep shaping it.

So you invented hyperinstruments by shaping technology to suit your needs? Yes, exactly! I remember when I first saw this box that made music with a computer fast enough to give the listener immediate feedback. Now, it's like "Duh!" [laughing] But then I was thinking, "Okay, you can play this box like an instrument, so can you turn the computer into a musical instrument?" It's not just a synthesizer because a computer has software running and therefore has some intelligence (or at least it should), so I immediately started thinking of these hyperinstruments.

And then I thought back to a really transitional point for me, which was when The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club came out. Musically for me it was like a light bulb went off when I heard it. I was amazed by the richness of sound and yet, at the same time, the directness of it. Also, it caused my first big musical fight with my mom. She's very open minded, but she totally didn't get that. [laughing] Anyway, the important thing about that album, as you know, is that it's the first time they saw and utilized all the possibilities of the recording studio. They were using technology to do mixing of sources, something totally new at the time. At the same time, it was basically the end of their performing career. On the one hand, they were tired of performing. But also, they couldn't recreate those studio sounds live. So it was both inspiring and disturbing to me. I thought, "Yes, studios are fabulous, but that's not what music is. Part of music is there, yes, but also, music happens when people bounce ideas off of each other."

So a hyperinstrument basically attempts to recreate those studio techniques in a live performance? Exactly.

You studied music at Juilliard, but how did you learn computer programming? When I was at Juilliard I was writing very complex music. I wrote this string trio that was based on changing speeds. Each instrument had different accelerations and slow downs and the consonance happened where they would link up. There was no pulse and no conductor so it was very, very hard for the performers to figure out. I needed to put it in computer form so I could play a tape of it for them to hear. My teacher, Elliot Carter, helped me find a man named Hubert Howe who was running at CUNY's graduate school. I went over there once a week with my score and we punched cards. A week later, he'd come back with reel-to-reel tape of my music. In addition to a couple summer courses at MIT and Stanford, most of what I learned was on the job.

Let's talk about opera. Your most recent opera, Death and the Powers (2010) was premiered in Monaco? Death and the Powers was commissioned by Prince Albert in Monaco and opened there in Fall 2010. Last spring we took it to Chicago and Boston. When it opened in Monaco in this beautiful, ornate 1880s opera house, I had this moment of panic right before the downbeat. Prince Albert was there and a lot of people who really know opera - kind of an older crowd except for my teenage daughters - and Death and the Powers is based on some pretty crazy stuff. It's a story about an older man who probably wants to live forever but chooses to leave the world and everything about himself there. It's kind of about death and legacy but also, there are robots, ha! So I was just sitting there thinking, "Oh my god. This could really shock people, both in subject and material." Luckily it went off really well.

Do you worry about being able to connect with a younger audience, one that isn't familiar with opera at all? I think about this a lot because I spend a great deal of time with 18-25 year olds at MIT. They're really neat kids, but they haven't necessarily grown up with a well-rounded understanding of not just opera, but any kind of historical background. We live in a culture where most people don't know a lot about what's been done before and we thrive on things changing fast. The way we plug into what's happening now makes us think that everything is new.

I personally am somebody who believes that the more you know about the world and the more you are curious about what's happening now and how it relates to what's been done before, the better. But it's also important to relate things to human nature and to how the world works. I'm not so interested in seeing works of art that are about other works of art. I'd rather have somebody think about human beings rather than what their colleague or competitor just did.

It's really hard in our culture. You don't want to do it through just another "education program." You want to do it anyway you can so that people have their curiosity piqued. People need to know that humans have been grappling with the important questions for a long time, why we're here and why we do what we do and what it all means. The more we can be connected to that, the richer our lives are.