Hypercollaborations: An Interview with Tod Machover Print E-mail
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Written by Carson Cooman   
Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Hypercollaborations: An Interview with Tod Machover

Biographical sketches of composer Tod Machover (b.1953) invariably begin with a quote from the Los Angeles Times calling him “America’s most wired composer.” Though likely intended to reflect the very significant role that technology has played in his career, it’s not inaccurate in several other senses as well—nearly all of Machover’s compositions emerge from creative dialog and collaborative environments with other people, and he himself is a rather “wired” personality: an energetic and enthusiastic evangelist for his work and creativity in general. Machover is the son of a computer scientist and a music teacher, and it is perhaps not surprising that his life has involved the synergy of those two fields. Educated at U.C. Santa Cruz and the Juilliard School (with Carter and Sessions), Machover then moved to Paris to work at IRCAM. In 1985, he returned to the U.S. to a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, where he has remained to the present day.

Serving as director of one’s own lab group (within the larger MIT Media Lab) is a unique working situation among American composers. Though it is an academic post, Machover does not teach composition or music courses in the normal manner. Rather, he is responsible for a group of graduate and undergraduate students who are largely pursuing degrees in nonmusical scientific fields, but who focus on projects that relate to music, sound, and creativity. Machover’s lab has been involved in many projects over the years, the most widely visible being the video game franchise Guitar Hero, the technology for which came out of the lab. The normal lab projects range from things very explicitly connected to Machover’s own compositions (such as the vast array of devices and robots created for his opera Death and the Powers ) to the creation of more general computer-based tools ( Hyperscore ), to extreme extensions of musical instruments for computer-assisted performance (Hyperinstruments). Many of the projects also end up linking to nonmusical research areas; an initiative in researching treatments for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease through the use of music technology is a current project. The collaborative nature of this most unusual working environment raises questions regarding the compositional process for a composer of classical music.

“I grew up as a cellist and played classical and rock music in grade school,” Machover recalls. “When I went to Juilliard, I wanted to write instrumental music but became interested in computers while I was there. I was writing quite complex music, and at first the computers seemed like a way to let performers hear what the music would sound like. Before I began working with technology, I never even imagined going to IRCAM, let alone MIT, and thus the thought of ending up in places where there are primarily collaborative projects with other people really snuck up on me. I enjoy the collaborative process, but I also still enjoy very much going off to my studio on my own and working through every detail alone.

“MIT is not a typical university. It has a more flexible structure. Though it has strong arts departments, it doesn’t have a typical ‘arts school’ dynamic. Even before the Media Lab was founded, the boundaries between disciplines felt fairly fluid. When they asked me to come here, I’d been at IRCAM for seven years and was definitely ready to return to the States. Originally, I thought when I left IRCAM I’d avoid academia and just go out on my own, but MIT seemed like it might be different. And I’ve been here ever since!

“The great thing about the Media Lab is that it has a pretty flexible structure, and professors here are invited to push their work to extremes in the interest of helping to shape the place. It’s a place where the people are really part of the community—professors don’t just fly in to teach lessons as happens at many music schools. The flexibility also allows me to arrange my schedule so that I can work on my own composition projects as they arise. On the other hand, I do try and make sure that what I’m doing has some connection to what is going on here. At times it takes a bit of imagination to think up a problem that interests me that I want to talk to other people about. Sometimes you really just want to be off on your own. But in a lab environment, I often end up talking about a project with students or colleagues at a much earlier stage than one might want to in the abstract. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but it often pushes me to discover new ideas that I might not have come to otherwise. I’ve become more used to it, but there are still times when you just have to keep it to yourself.”

The notion of authorship and compositional practice is quite different for a composer working in such a lab environment. Yet Machover makes very clear that the music he writes is his own; all the compositional decisions are still ultimately made by him, despite the involvement of others at even early stages of the creative process.

“There are three basic working methods,” he explains. “I may write or sketch out all the music and then bring it back to the lab to begin discussing the tools I need to realize it. A middle way is imagining the music and the inventions at the same time—while I’m composing it, the technology is also emerging. This was the case when writing for a new kind of instrument, like Begin Again Again for Yo-Yo Ma playing Hypercello. I’d try things with him and then go back and work more on the piece. The instrument developed very much in tandem with the composition of the music. Then sometimes—rarely—I design the technology first (like the Operabots for Death and the Powers ) and afterwards search for the most appropriate music.”

Since so many of Machover’s pieces involve an active use of technology in their performance realizations (not just composition), the questions of shelf-life and viable longevity of these pieces are significant. Though string instruments have changed since Haydn’s era, a modern string quartet can still effectively perform a Haydn quartet with today’s instruments. But in 50 years, will the specific computer technology needed for much of Machover’s music still be accessible?

“In the ’80s and early ’90s things changed so fast,” he says. “In the early ’80s there was no MIDI, so everything regarding musical communication on a computer was programmed from scratch. But since MIDI’s invention in the ’80s, we now at least have a common protocol for sending musical data. Today’s computers are more powerful and portable than one might have imagined back then. With laptops being so full-featured, the processing power needed to run these setups is available anywhere. The major software companies are also so big now that it feels much less likely that they will close down an entire major product line.

“We did everything in my lab on Apple computers, and pieces that I made from the ’80s to the mid ’90s were often stymied by each software change, since in those days there was little compatibility between operating system versions. Each version upgrade would be a complete change; you’d write something in 1987 and by 1989 you couldn’t run it anymore. Things these days (since OS X) are so much more stable and compatible over a period of years.

“But there’s no question some of these earlier pieces would now need to be updated in order to be performable today. It’s a challenge to raise money to do these projects in the first place, but very few people are interested in putting money into updating pieces. For composers starting out now writing such technology-intense music there is a lot more stability and understanding about these things, since larger companies are often involved in building the underlying technologies. You can create on a well-developed platform whose longevity seems more assured. I’ve kept a certain number of pieces updated, but there are older pieces that I’d really like to update. I’m hoping that in the coming years, I’ll be able to devote some time and resources to update these pieces. The Hyperstring Trilogy is a good example. I could make the technological realization of those pieces so much simpler with today’s computers and software.

“For example, when we started, we had to develop our own bow for the Hyperinstruments to send all the data back to the computer—the technology components (and software) had to be created by us from scratch. These days, you can purchase a commercial bow that is very similar. They aren’t quite as good as ours was in terms of their feature set. You want such a product to be 100-percent reliable so that no data is ever dropped, unbelievably responsive, and you want the software to be able to make assumptions about the data received so that the instrument can know something about how it’s being played and react accordingly. So, to use the commercial bow we still had to write our own software. But even the thought that one can buy a product to simplify much of the process was not something we imagined back when we built our own.”

Several of Machover’s projects have involved collaboration with lay people and audience members (individuals outside of his lab) in the process of developing musical material. One early project was the Brain Opera (1996), a cross between an installation and a concert piece that was written for the inaugural Lincoln Center Festival; in the piece, the audience interacted with numerous physical inventions from Machover’s lab to help shape the material for a multimedia performance work. Toy Symphony (2001) pursued some of these ideas further. Machover’s team developed a series of “Music Toys” that were performed by children along with a professional orchestra. The project also resulted in the development of a major software program, Hyperscore (which is now available as a commercial product). Hyperscore continues to be a significant part of future projects. Machover’s current work-in-progress, A Toronto Symphony , is a large-scale orchestral work that will combine Machover’s own material with material solicited from citizens of Toronto. They will use the Hyperscore software and other methods to share material back and forth with Machover and the orchestra during the composition of the piece. I asked him how he balances his own compositional goals with the material he receives from others.

“For the newest Batman movie,” he says, “Hans Zimmer sent out a website saying ‘I’m doing the score, and if you send me sounds that you can do with your voice, I’ll put them in the movie.’ I’m not sure what he did with them, but I suspect that before he even asked, he knew the result he was going to achieve from those materials. By the time you got to the end, no audience member was necessarily going to hear his or her individual sounds. That’s often the challenge with these collaborative projects that I’ve been doing now for many years. The natural tendency is to develop a large-scale plan into which the other material fits. With the Brain Opera , I took the material that was generated, and then I put it where I wanted it. I learned a great deal from that project in terms of how to set up a large-scale collaborative environment. In Toy Symphony , a tool like Hyperscore gave participants—children in that case—much more control over shaping results.

“There’s a certain kind of collaboration that I’ve learned to do at the Media Lab. I like setting up environments where I bring people at all different levels together to realize a shared vision. Death and the Powers was a perfect example. We had world-famous people working right next to undergraduate interns. I didn’t admit anybody to the project who wasn’t considered an equal. What I’m trying to do in Toronto is to set up an environment to collaborate on a large scale. We’ve invited anybody there to participate in the process, as a member of the team rather than as an anonymous voice.”

I asked Machover if there was any danger in these compositional systems glossing over the technical foundations that are actually needed to write music.

“It could be that something like Hyperscore won’t even be necessary in 10 years. But it feels like right now there is such a gap in terms of what a professional musician can do in creating music and what someone in the general public can achieve. Even sequencing programs like Digital Performer still require quite a bit of background. There’s no style constraint with Hyperscore, either. You can do anything you want to, but you don’t have to use traditional notation. What I hope is that people get quickly to the point of working with interesting musical material, and that the material becomes personal to them. Hyperscore is visual; it looks the way it sounds, but it’s not totally literal; you are composing with self-constructed melodies, harmonies, and rhythms rather than simply drawing pictures on the screen. This allows people to think of Hyperscore as a notation language, not a painting program. I want people to get excited about what composition is. There are people who hit a wall after making a few pieces, and they never get much better than that. There are people who have a fair amount of musical intuition, but never really knew it before. My real desire is that somebody might get hooked through Hyperscore and then be inspired to learn and develop further, even beyond what’s possible within the program. I look at it as a tool to get people passionately interested in making things. In terms of its connection with audiences, what I’d love to do is to be involved in making experiences that cause people to listen more passionately and completely. We’ve made many tools in the last 20 years. The tools for professionals are one thing, but with the tools for audience our goal is to increase people’s awareness of how exciting and profound music can be.”

Machover’s most recent large-scale project was the opera Death and the Powers , which premiered in 2010 after more than 10 years of work. The libretto by Robert Pinsky concerns a man (Simon Powers) who wishes to live forever by downloading himself into a large-scale computer environment. The opera involves a tremendous amount of technology, including onstage robots, an interactive musical chandelier, and a staged “environment/set” that reacts in real time to the performers. When Simon has downloaded himself into the system, his character does not appear on stage in a normal manner. The singer (James Maddalena) performs the remainder of the part backstage, hooked into a computer system that translates his actions into the onstage set/environment.

“Death and the Powers started out simply with a commission from a group of patrons in Monaco who wanted an opera that would ‘change the way people thought about opera’ and attract a different Monaco opera audience,” Machover says. “There were no more specifics than that, and my initial ideas dealt with mortality, legacy, and how you pass on who you are to future generations. Going ‘beyond multimedia’ became part of its focus—how the physical environment might enhance rather than detract from (as in current arena-rock concerts) the human presence. It turned out that there was so much about the story and technology to develop that most of that was created before I’d written a note. So, I realized at one stage that we had all these instruments, we had a libretto, we had an infrastructure, but nobody had heard a note of music! The project wasn’t going to go in the right direction until I just stopped everything and went off to write the music itself.

“The bad and good things about opera are that, while it is often a constrained form within traditional opera companies, it’s also a very lively form right now. There are opera companies of all sorts, from the small and scrappy to the huge and polished. Many of them are really taking a chance on adventurous ideas. I think there’s been broader thinking in opera in these past years as compared to orchestras.”

Machover’s four operas cover a range of subjects and characters. Besides Death and the Powers, there is VALIS (based on the futuristic novel by Philip K. Dick), Resurrection (on the novel by Tolstoy), and Skellig (a children’s opera based on the book by David Almond). ( Brain Opera , previously mentioned, is arguably an opera in some respects, though it differs even more than the others from traditional expectations of what the genre usually means.)

“I’ve chosen different stories for each of the operas, because they appeal to me in different ways,” Machover says. “But the human stories at the core are fairly similar—mainly the question of how do you decide that action is still possible when the world is so complex around you, how do you make a community, and how do you find the will to continue when things get difficult. All the operas are in some way about those questions. I love words, and I love stories, and I do think that I’ve tried to find a form of expression that suits each. I always seem to find more similarities between the operas than other people do.”

Machover’s most traditional opera is Resurrection , a “grand opera” that was premiered in 1999 by Houston Grand Opera. It tells the story of a nobleman who spends his life seeking redemption for a sin committed years earlier: an affair he had with a maid sent her into a life of prostitution. Resurrection may well represent Machover’s language at its most instantly accessible, with a score that blends his characteristic hyperactivity with lush postromanticism. To some degree, this comes from the 19th-century Russian subject, but also likely from the context of writing an opera for a traditional opera house. One of Resurrection ’s most memorable parts is the ending, in which a big tune worthy of Broadway brings the work to an emotionally affirmative conclusion in the midst of a grand treatment for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

“Working on Resurrection with David Gockley of Houston Grand Opera was a wonderful process,” Machover says. “He gave me a hard time and really wanted to be involved at every stage. He’d push back on things when he felt it was necessary. My original ending was far more dark and complex. I remember in the last few weeks of rehearsal, they told me that the rhythmic textures were too hard to perform well, and so I had to simplify. The original ending was thus much more ambiguous than it ended uop. As you know, in my music I very often create juxtapositions between these complicated and simpler textures. The original ending of Resurrection was like that. The forces pulled apart and the orchestra submerged the melody within a very complex texture, much like the last movement of Jeux Deux [Machover’s 2005 concerto for Hyperpiano]. In my original conception, I wanted the protagonist to feel like he was repeating the melody because he was trying to convince himself, but that you as the listener weren’t totally sure at the end whether it would work out. I usually end things with a bit of a question mark.”

The role of technology in Resurrection is also different from the other operas. Machover uses a traditional orchestra that also includes very integrated parts for synthesizers.

“What is sophisticated about that opera from a technology level is the orchestration, particularly the combination of acoustic and electronic orchestration. There are a great many things that happen that would not be possible with just one or another; there are many acoustic tricks. Technology has nothing to do with the Tolstoy story, so I did not have any intention of drawing attention to the techniques I was using. Writing the piece brought out the side of me that uses electronics from a purely instrumental perspective, to add punch to the bass and subtlety to the high range and to add some timbral glue and sound combinations that are not otherwise possible.”

In recent years, with only rare exceptions, Machover has written pieces that involve technology. I wondered if this was a spiraling circumstance, where he would only be asked for these sorts of pieces because it’s what he’s known for doing.

“I do think that’s true to some extent,” he says. “Though in the last few years, I think there have been more people interested in my music just for its own sake, and so they’ll ask me to do whatever I want to do. I’m doing a flute concerto right now for Carol Wincenc. I’m not sure at the moment if it will have a technological component. There have been more orchestras as well asking for pieces recently.”

Whatever the next directions his work takes, there’s no question that Machover will continue to remain a distinctive and unusual presence in the world of composition. The word “unique” is overused, but it certainly applies to Machover. No other composer has a career or a catalog like his. It’s also hard, if not impossible, to think of another classical composer whose work and research have been so connected with other disciplines and endeavors. Though he spends his days working in the high-tech environment of MIT’s Media Lab (with its new 2010 building), Machover’s home and writing studio are located on an 18th-century farm in Waltham. And he makes clear that for all the technology in his life and work, at the end of the day he is at heart a composer who is still rooted in tradition. Like any compelling artist, the creative mix of past, present, and future are in a constant, ever-shifting dialog.

MACHOVER Light. 1 Soft Morning, City! 2 1 Peter Eötvös, cond; 1 Ens Intercontemporain; 2 Jane Manning (sop); 2 Barry Guy (db) NEW WORLD CRI 506 (53:05)

MACHOVER Begin Again Again. 1 Song of Penance. 2 Forever and Ever 3 1 Matt Haimovitz (Hypercello); 2 Kim Kashkashian (Hyperviola); 3 Ani Kavafian (Hyperviolin); 2,3 Gil Rose, cond; Boston Modern O Project OXINGALE 8.559349 (64: 38)

MACHOVER Sparkler. 3 Interludes 1 & 2. Hyper-Dim-Sums. 2 But Not Simpler 2 Jeux Deux 1,3 1 Michael Chertock (Hyperpiano); 2 iO Qrt; 3 Paul Mann, cond; Odense SO BRIDGE 9346 (66:44)

These three albums provide a generally representative cross section of American composer Tod Machover’s instrumental music. Not included are any of his operas, the area of his work that has received the most attention in recent years. My favorite Machover piece, the superb opera Resurrection , is available in a recording on the Albany label. A recording of his newest opera, Death and the Powers , should be released by the end of 2012. Other discs of instrumental music are available on the Bridge label.

The CRI album (reissued through New World Record’s rehabilitation of the CRI back catalog) contains two of the earliest works still in Machover’s worklist. Both were written near the beginning of Machover’s years working at IRCAM in Paris. Light (1979) is a work for large ensemble and two computer-generated tapes. Soft Morning, City! (1980) is for soprano, double bass, and electronics, with a text from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake . Both are representative of preoccupations that continue in Machover’s music to the present day, most especially the relationship between simple material (usually a melody) and very complex surroundings. There is no question that these two works are not nearly as immediately accessible to a listener as Machover’s later music, but Light especially is a piece with a very convincing musical argument. Though pop and rock music had been a part of Machover’s earlier years, the influences from those musical worlds did not begin to emerge as overtly in his work until his later IRCAM years (and subsequent return to the U.S.). As such, his more recent music would generally be considered more accessible to most listeners, with a more luminous harmonic palate.

The Oxingale album is titled Hyperstring Trilogy —three compositions (1991–93) written for the Hyperinstruments developed by Machover and his team at the MIT Media Lab. Hyperinstruments are described as technologically enhanced instruments that “enable the performer’s normal playing technique and interpretive skills to shape and control computer extensions to the instrument, thus combining the warmth and personality of human performance with the precision and clarity of digital technology.” Begin Again Again is a cello solo originally written for Yo-Yo Ma; Song of Penance is a concerto for viola, computer voice, and 17 instruments; Forever and Ever is a concerto for violin and chamber orchestra. The trilogy as a whole is loosely inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy . These pieces have all been rapturously received in live performance and on recording, though I have never warmed to them as much as to other works of Machover’s. For my ears, they tend toward the overly discursive side of his output, where the melodic and textural ideas feel like they are going in many directions at once and the result is more tiring than compelling.

The most recent album’s title piece is based on a quote from Albert Einstein: “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Though the pieces were written separately for different commissions and occasions, the album was assembled conceptually as a total listening experience; Machover even wrote two purely electronic interludes that actually bleed from one piece into the next. Sparkler (2001) is a festive overture that was originally part of Machover’s Toy Symphony , a large-scale collaborative orchestral adventure involving professional orchestras and children. The work can stand on its own and uses a typical Machover conception of creating an elaborate and hyperactive context for a simple melody. The orchestra contains several electronic keyboards, and the entire orchestral sound is also run through real-time computer processing. Jeux Deux (2005) is a concerto for Hyperpiano, a piano (Yamaha Disklavier) extended by software to respond in real time to the player. For example, something the pianist plays may trigger the piano/software to play additional music. It is also a very characteristic score for the composer, and a strong single piece introduction to many of the things he does frequently. The Hyper-Dim-Sums (2004) are three short string quartet movements written by Machover as a proof of concept in writing with the Hyperscore software developed by his lab for composing music visually. But Not Simpler (2005) is one of his few non-technological pieces of recent years, a restless and engaging full-scale, single-movement string quartet.

Machover’s music attempts to strike a balance between the simple and complex, and he very often succeeds. My favorite two works of his remain the opera Resurrection and the mammoth early piano work Chansons d’amour, but there is certainly music to enjoy in these albums. Carson Cooman


Last Updated ( Sunday, 23 September 2012 )
 
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