Tod Machover is head of the Media Lab's Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group. An influential composer, he has been praised for creating music that breaks traditional artistic and cultural boundaries; his music has been performed and commissioned by some of the world's most important performers and ensembles. In 1995, he received a "Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres," one of France's highest cultural honors, and in 1998 he was awarded the first DigiGlobe Prize from the German government. He has composed five operas and is the inventor of Hyperinstruments, a technology that uses smart computers to augment virtuosity. Hyperinstruments have been used by performers such as Yo-Yo Ma, Prince, and Peter Gabriel. Machover is also the creator of the Toy Symphony, an international music performance and education project. His research group is currently examining ways to use music in therapy for emotionally and physically challenged individuals. His newest opera, Death and the Powers, to premiere in Monte-Carlo 2010, is being developed by an extraordinary creative team of international artists, designers, writers, and theatrical luminaries, as well as by an interdisciplinary team of Media Lab graduate and undergraduate students. Scored for a small ensemble of specially designed Hyperinstruments, Powers will feature a robotic, animatronic stage—the first of its kind—that will gradually “come alive” as the opera’s main character. Machover, who was formerly director of musical research at Pierre Boulez's IRCAM institute in Paris, received both his BA and MA from the Juilliard School in New York.
Question: How did you end up at Juilliard?
Tod Machover: My mom went to Juilliard and I never had it in my mind to go to Juilliard. I’d studied piano first and switched over to cello when I was about seven. I played mostly chamber and solo classical music. I got really involved with rock music when I was a teenager. I wired up my cello. When I was done with high school, I knew that music was really important to me and I knew I didn’t want to be a cellist, but I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to be a composer, or think about – I was just interested in the ideas behind music, I was interested in mathematics. And the last thing I thought about was going to Juilliard.
I also had grown up and gone to high school in New York, so I wanted to get out of the east coast. I went to the University of California, Santa Cruz for a year, which turned out to be a really vibrant, very intensive intellectual atmosphere where you could do a lot of aspect of music without it being a conservatory. And that’s why I went there. There was a very good guy there doing computer music. There was a performing ensemble doing a lot of John Cage and European avant-garde composers. There was a guy who had been at the University of Chicago who had retired to Santa Cruz who was one of the great music historians, music theorists. And I used to go to his house and I got him to tutor me on Beethoven piano sonatas. So, there was nobody giving a course. It was a wonderful place. But I had a lot more musical training than most people there. So after a year, I thought gee I don’t really need college anymore, which wasn’t correct, but that’s what I thought. And I definitely, within a month or so of getting to Santa Cruz, I realized that composing was what I really wanted to do. That my mind loved to put things together and had combined all the different things I really loved. And I started getting even more interested in technology than I was in high school.
So, I moved to Italy for a year because one of my former cello teachers was playing in the orchestra in Florence. So that was really nice. I moved there and played in the orchestra for years and studied with a very famous Italian composer named Luigi Dallapiccola. And then, well quickly, at the end of that year, I knew that I probably should study something. I probably wasn’t done with – I didn’t know anything, but I probably should go back and study composition. I knew I was a composer and Pierre Boulez, who at that point was conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a great Conductor and Composer. He’s kind of my hero. He came to Florence with the BBC Symphony and I chased him down the block after the concert, and I think he thought I was going to mug him or something. And finally turned around and I said, I’m a young composer, I’d love to show you my music, could we talk?
So, he invited me the next day to rehearsal and we talked. I showed him what I was doing and he was very, very nice. And I said, would you teach me? And he said, “You know, I just don’t teach. I never have. I don’t teach composing, I don’t teach conducting. I just don’t do that. I’m happy to stay in touch and follow what you are doing, but I can’t teach.” So, I said, “Where’s the best place to go?” And he said, the only good thing right now is to go to Juilliard and study with Elliot Carter. So, that’s what I did. Except it was the end of the summer. But I went back and I convinced them to let me take the exam and got in for that September. So, I did start at Juilliard half way through my Bachelor’s. I stayed there for my Bachelor’s, my Masters, and started my doctorate. The first year of my doctorate, and then the same Pierre Boulez had in between, had been invited back to France. The Pompidou Center had opened up and they started this big music technology institute. And Boulez invited me to go there, so I went for a year and stayed for seven and never went back.
Question: How would you evaluate your education at Juilliard?
Tod Machover: Juilliard – is this going to be on the air? It’s funny, music is, I guess it’s true with a lot of disciplines, but just to get the skill you need to practice the art, you know, to get your way around an instrument, to be able to imagine complex music in your mind so that you can think about it, shape it, write it down. Be able to, if you’re a composer, hear your music played and be able to immediately have judgment about whether it’s the way you want it or not and then articulate it. I mean many, many skills that are not really intellectual skills. You have to train your mind and your ears, but they’re more like athletic skills. So, part of music you just have to learn those things or you can’t practice the art.
On the other hand, one of my interests in music has always been what it means, why it affects us the way it does? One of the big mysteries of music is, if you take music without words, it means something to us because we know it’s about something. It’s about something important humanly, but since there are no words, nobody knows what it’s about. Is it about a person? Is it about that person? Is it about some kind of story that you could put into words? So, there’s just an incredibly rich and interesting relationship between our listening to music and the way our minds engage.
I mention that because you can’t do any of that at Juilliard. So, a place like Juilliard is terrific. I got to study with Elliot Carter so this amazing, probably the greatest living composer in my view right now. But he was never a pedagog, I mean, I was one of his very few students and the lessons – I studied with him for like six years and I’d go into a lesson, there’s a piano there, but as I remember it, for six years, we never actually lifted the lid of the piano, so the piano lid was closed. Put the music on the piano and as I remember it, every lesson we’d stand up. I don’t remember why we didn’t sit at the piano, and we’d look at the music and start talking about it. And you would never kind of plunk out your piece, you know here’s how it sounds, you’d never come in with a cassette or a CD. The understanding was, you imagined it in your head and you could look at it and talk about it and both of you were hearing it as if it were a CD playing, but it was totally silent.
It’s almost as if he were looking at his music. He’d look at it and say, “Oh, gee, okay, I see what’s going here. But you know it makes that sound here, but you could do it this way, or you could do it that way and if you do it like that, it would keep somebody interested for over here and this feels too obvious, you might do --” So, it was completely unpedagogical because he wasn’t telling me a principle, he wasn’t telling me a theory, he wasn’t saying here’s a way to think about it. He was just thinking about it out loud as if it were his music pretty much.
And so I had to learn how to ask him questions, especially about harmony and texture. So, it was a very unusual pedagogical experience. It was a wonderful way to train, listening ability, inner listening. But most of the other courses were not so interesting and it was not a very intellectual environment. So, I took a lot of courses. I signed up for the general studies at Columbia while I was there. I think now, Juilliard and Columbia actually have some reciprocal program, but then it was like just doing another, you know, in my spare time. So, that’s where I took music theory and actually computer science and I studied German. All these things I wanted to learn, and I took some mathematics there. So, it’s kind of like two degrees.
And Juilliard is – you know, the great thing about it is it’s a really high level of talent. I mean a lot of people there who are just very good at what they do and have been doing it for a long time. A lot of people there had decided, way younger than I did, that they wanted to be musicians. I think part of the bad thing is that skill is emphasized so much that a lot of people, by the time they get to Juilliard, well I think they kind of forget why they got into music in the first place and if they’re performers – this is a simplification, but a lot of them are trying to win a competition and play more accurately, or better, or more beautifully, whatever can be measured, than somebody else. And you know, even for composers, it’s to win a prize, or make a mark. It’s not really – what do I really care about and what’s – and the only reason anybody would ever want to be a composer is because there is something so burning in side you that you need to express and think about and figure out. I mean, it’s such an impractical profession that, in general, composers are sympathetic because they’re dealing with real issues and most of the practical things in life are kind of difficult.
But at Juilliard, it tended to be almost like a business school. So, I learned a lot there and I still have some friends there, but it wasn’t my favorite environment.
Recorded on January 14, 2010