Tod Machover, named “the world’s most wired composer” by the Los Angeles Times, is also an accomplished performer, professor of music and media at MIT, and all-around innovator. His projects bridge the gap between tradition and technology, many with the aim of making music more accessible to all audiences. His latest work, a robotic opera called "Death and the Powers," will make its Chicago debut at the Chicago Opera Theater in April.
Machover will speak at special Northwestern University Science Café event in Evanston on March 29th about this unique production and other projects that are breaking musical barriers. We asked him for a preview.
What brought you to opera?
I hated opera as a kid. I loved playing solo instruments (the cello is my instrument), I loved playing chamber music, I loved playing in a rock band when I was a teenager, but opera just felt very foreign to me.
[However], my music has always been not just about sound, but also about people and emotions. I’ve always thought of music as something that pulls you in and takes you somewhere – that’s why I do it.
Opera is a form where you get to do all of that, and also define characters and some kind of story. Opera is the form where you get to combine all of the senses and all of the elements with music at the core, keeping it all together.
I’ve done probably more different kinds of operas than anybody else. My first opera was a science fiction one called VALIS, based on a great novel by Philip K. Dick. Then I did an opera called the Brain Opera, where the audience gets to participate and help create it. I also did a very traditional opera called Resurrection, based on Tolstoy’s last novel. I look for a story that means something to me, and then I make the opera that it needs.
What’s the story behind your newest opera, Death and the Powers?
This opera is about a man in his late sixties named Simon Powers. He’s rich, successful, kind of eccentric, and he’s tired of the world. He’s done everything, he’s tried to change the world with his foundation, his inventions and his actions, but now he’s frustrated and wants to leave. But the paradox is that he wants everything about himself to stay.
So he imagines this other form of existence where he doesn’t have to be in the world anymore, and makes this thing he calls “The System.” It allows him to download everything about himself into his environment – his memories, his emotions, his ability to relate to the people he loves, his wife and daughter in particular.
The opera is actually framed like a mystery play. The text is by Robert Pinsky, the great poet, and the idea is that [the opera] is a text [that’s survived] sometime into the future when there are no humans left in the world. The opera starts and ends with just robots on the stage – a chorus of robots. These robots have been instructed to perform this play/opera periodically in order to understand what humans were like. It’s pretty comical, since they don’t understand “death” and “bodies” and don’t really want to put on the show.
They’re real robots, correct? Not actors?
They are real robots, and it’s so scary [laughing]. There are twelve of them, and they make their own way on stage. They’re beautiful. The designer is a guy named Alex McDowell, who is one of the great film designers who has often worked with Steven Spielberg on films like Minority Report.
The idea is that the robots are actually putting on the show. They’re onstage, like a Greek chorus, and they interact with the characters, they move around, and they have lots of personality.
I’ve read that the stage “gradually comes alive as the main character,” which is so innovative. How does this work?
Simon Powers does download himself into The System and goes into this other kind of existence. James Maddalena - a very famous baritone - plays this role, and he’s offstage for most of the opera – he’s actually down with the orchestra. We call it “disembodied performance.” We measure his singing, his body gestures, his facial expressions, his muscle tension and his breathing.
We’re measuring things he’s aware of in his performance, but we are also measuring many things he’s doing that he’s not consciously aware of. We’re trying to get a sense of his full emotion. All of these things are analyzed and [they] control everything that is happening on stage. They control the sound and everything you’re looking at. The walls [of the set] are actually gigantic robots. They look like the walls of his house, they show color and light and pictures, and it’s all generated from what he’s doing [in the orchestra] below.
The idea is that you have the feeling that [the walls] are actually him – a [person] turned into another form. [This is] what the show is really about – is that him? What has he left? Is he alive? But even more importantly, if we're his family, can we still relate to him like this? Do I miss him? And if I miss him, do I want to join him? That’s the most important question: what is his legacy, and what is [his family] going to do about it? The big tension is who ends up joining him, and who doesn’t.
And of course the most important thing is to make these questions come alive, to make them human, to draw everyone in to feel the weight of each decision, and to do this by combining all the elements on stage – the robots, the walls, the musical chandelier, the lighting, the massive surround sound, and mostly the sensuous melodies, lush harmonies and punchy rhythms – into something more than the sum of the parts. I think we may have achieved this, but come check out Death and the Powers when it comes to Chicago to see and hear for yourself!
You’ve talked a lot about the barriers that keep most people from making music, despite the fact that they love listening to it. What are some of these barriers, and why are they so important?
Music is a funny, very paradoxical activity. Of all the things that people spend hours and hours doing, it’s one of the most profound experiences, and one of the most mysterious. You can go through the entire literature and you won’t find a good article about why music survived through evolution, and why every society has had music. It’s less directly and obviously connected to survival in our everyday lives, but it’s here, and it’s very important to people.
So everyone loves music, almost everybody is capable of responding to music, but at the same time, there are an incredible amount of barriers that keep people from making music themselves. One of the barriers is that the traditional ways of learning music, as wonderful as they are, are very difficult. All the physical instruments, whether it’s a piano or a guitar, take a long amount of time just to physically master. And, the idea of playing the instrument is the central focus, rather than what music is for – the communication and the joy [of it].
You [also] have to learn this notation to write music that’s unlike anything else that you’re learning. The rules of music – what a chord is, what sounds good – it’s just a different language. So there are a lot of specialized things that mean that even if you love music, it’s not necessarily so easy to jump in.
There’s this other funny thing about music. Music is very direct and very important to us, but because it also has all of these magical qualities – it’s hard to learn and a lot of people don’t understand how it’s made – we tend to idolize the people who are very good at it. So there’s this split between the people who are making music and the people who are listening to music.
I think music is not just wonderful, but it’s transformative, it’s important – it can make a difference in your emotional life, it can make a difference in your concentration, in the way you relate to other people. It’s not just fun; it’s much more than that.
Despite these barriers, you believe that it’s crucial that people not only appreciate music, but participate in creating it as well. Why is this?
You’ve probably heard of the Mozart effect. It stated that simply listening to music would produce all kinds of magical effects. If you listened to music when you were very young – even before you were born – it would train your concentration and all kinds of things. And it’s turned out, over the last five years, that the research was just wrong. It’s a nice idea, but it isn’t enough to just listen. It’s the act of being totally immersed and involved in the musical experience that matters. But that’s actually very hard to do.
If we could all learn to listen with our full being and concentrate completely, that would be fine. [But] I’ve been very involved in trying to think of related activities that allow us to be part of a musical experience, so you can [also] touch the music, modify the music, participate in a performance, and yes, make music yourself.
One of the great things about the arts in general is that the creative aspect is right on the surface. If you were going to be cynical, you could say, “Well, the world could go on without [music]. If we didn’t have a symphony, the world would go on." And this makes you think that just the act of someone deciding to create this out of nothing is special. But in truth, creativity is nothing more than the ability of any of us, at any moment, to find the best way to adapt to whatever situation we’re presented with.
I think being creative, being able to see the world fresh at every moment and to find the best solution for anything that happens, is the best thing that we can teach anybody. One of the great reasons to allow people to be creative in music is not only because it’s a joy, it’s wonderful to make music – but also because making music is a wonderful laboratory simply to learn how to view the world creatively.
Your lab at MIT develops ways to make creating music more accessible. How does technology factor in?
I’ve thought for a long time that technology, the arts, and the sciences have a lot to offer to each other as a whole package. The great thing about technology is that it’s one of the most creative mediums you can find. Technology is really just a set of tools that allows you to take something you’ve imagined and make it real. If you think of it that way, it’s the most general tool for making your imagination real in the world. It’s literally a bridge – it meets anybody where they are and allows them to go somewhere else.
Technology lets us cut around a lot of those first barriers that I talked about. Take Guitar Hero, or Rock Band – you don’t actually have to learn the guitar to be able to [play it], but it feels like a guitar. [Guitar Hero] came out of my lab, and it came out of a field of work we invented called Hyperinstruments.
What is a Hyperinstrument?
We started out with a vision of leveraging the world’s great musicians – people who already have incredible skill – and building an instrument that basically knows how it’s being played. It can feel the interpretation and where the music is going, and use that sensitivity to allow the performer to simply add more to the instrument.
I started getting that idea when I was twelve or so – when Sgt. Pepper’s (the Beatles album) first came out. I grew up playing classical music, didn’t listen to much pop music, but when Sgt. Pepper’s came out, it was like the world went from black and white to color.
Sgt. Pepper’s was the first record the Beatles made that couldn’t be played live. They were imagining a totally new texture for their music – it wasn’t just the melodies or the harmonies or the vocal performance. It was all these layers of sound that told the story, blended together, and the only way you could do that was in a complex, technological recording studio.
So, ever since Sgt. Pepper’s came out, [I wondered] how to get the best of both worlds. How do you use all the magic you can do with technology – make this new kind of hybrid music that uses instruments we know but also sounds from nature and sounds we’ve never heard before, all mixed together – but have it all be spontaneous and connected to performance?
That’s led me to thinking about music the way I do, and to making these Hyperinstruments. One of the first well-known ones we made, in the early 90’s, was a hypercello for Yo-Yo Ma. We built the whole instrument from scratch. It looks and feels like a regular cello, but it has a slightly different shape and sensors inside. It really is a new kind of instrument. [When] you turn it on, the computer follows and monitors it. As you play, all the gestures – like how much “oomph” in the bow, or how you shape the quality of sound – all those things the instrument understands. I start out playing a cello and, depending on how I play, it can turn into a voice, or a trumpet, or into something I’ve never heard before. That all depends on how you program it.
The idea is that it’s this magical kind of instrument that understands how it’s being played. Whether I’m designing for Yo-Yo Ma, or for a kid, or for a senior, I always want it really to feel like an instrument. I want you to think about the feeling and the sound, and not at all think about the technology. You forget about that.
Building this hypercello lit up a light bulb [for me], that we can use the same kind of technology to build expressive instruments for anybody, not just for a virtuoso like Yo-Yo Ma. That’s what led to a whole orchestra of these instruments for the general public in my Brain Opera, and what led to Guitar Hero and Rock Band – the techniques for measuring what anybody can do and then interpreting it in a smart way. The nice thing about Rock Band is that you’re pushing these buttons, but the music is actually changing, and it’s changing in a way that you can tell when you’re getting better. That’s actually a tricky thing to do.
Machover will speak at a special Science Cafe event on Tuesday March 29 at 7:00 PM in Northwestern's McCormick Tribune Center. Visit the event website for more information and to reserve a seat.
"Death and the Powers" debuts at the Chicago Opera Theater on April 2. Visit their website for more information.