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: What do you predict will be the next breakthrough in music technology?
Tod Machover: We’re at a very, very interesting, exciting and a little bit scary point in music technology. I mean, over my career, I’d say the last 25 years; we’ve gone from music and computer being for 10 people in the world to having personal computers, to now being able to do amazing things on your iPhone, or with Rock Band. So, right now there’s enormous capability with technology in our devices that everybody has access to.
The one obvious thing is that the devices are so good now that you can also see their limitations extremely well. So, there are a lot of music apps on the iPhone, for instance. There’s an ocarina, there’s music instruments you can play, there’s some rhythm instruments, there’s some editing instruments. And it’s like the dog that can talk. I have a dog that can talk. Oh gee, but I can’t understand, I can only understand one or two words that he’s saying. But, it’s a dog, that pretty good. So, an iPhone doing what it can do with music, it’s kind of remarkable, but it’s just very crude. The sound isn’t that refined. I mean, I’ve got one in my pocket. It doesn’t feel like a musical instrument. It’s hard, it’s fragile. You can’t squeeze it, you can’t touch it. It’s even much more kind of – it’s fine for most of the things you do with multi-media, but even think of a piano. I mean, a piano is a machine, but you’ve got ivory and there’s weight behind the keys and you have this really – you feel the resonance in the instrument, you feel the vibration in the pedal. I mean, these are still very crude.
So, I think one thing that will happen is that the kind of merger of hyperinstruments, of instruments that have a real physical feel, that are sensitive, that are worthy of somebody learning and mastering will be combined with a lot of computing and software power already in these little devices. So, I think we’ll start seeing real instruments and composing technology that is available to many people that is just a lot more sophisticated than this. I think we’ll see something like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, which right now is a huge amount of fun, but it doesn’t really teach you about music, it doesn’t really help you listen even if you’re playing with four or five people, you’re glued to the screen making sure you’re following the visual symbols. It doesn’t teach you about personalizing your performance. It doesn’t rate you on “is your performance more beautiful.” There are no adjectives involved.
So I think that’s another frontier certainly we’ll see pretty soon, things like music games that are also creative and expressive and worthy of learning. But I think the big, big breakthroughs really have to do with our growing understanding of what goes on in our minds and why is it that music affects us at all. I mean, it’s still a pretty big mystery that music exists in every culture, every society that we know about, but it’s very hard to trace back why that would be. You know, what are the biological reasons, what are the social reasons. Why does every society seem to want to make music when it often seems like kind of a frill. Well, it’s not a frill. And we probably don’t have time to talk about why. I’ll come back and we can talk about that again some other time.
But music seems to stimulate more parts of our mind than almost every other activity. It combines more parts of our minds. It synchronizes our minds. It allows people in groups to do a non-verbal immediate activity together. You could argue that is synchronizes people’s biological – many, many biological functions for individuals when you are part of a group making music together. There’s many reason music exists and we are beginning to no only understand that, but measure that.
So one thing that I think we’ll see, we already starting to see people being interested in it, but this is something in the next 20 years, we’ll start seeing enough knowledge developing that we’ll be able to have some objective ways of measuring whether a particular piece of music is pleasing to you. Whether, if you are in a particular mood and you want to keep that mood, or be in another mood, whether by listening to his particular piece of music, or by changing that music while you are listening, whether we can reinforce something, pull you somewhere else. You can think of it – in some ways you can think of it like a perfect psycho-analysis session, or like a yoga session except the music is a medium to lead you somewhere or reinforce something. It’s really being used as a more precise instrument than we could possibly do now. Not just guessing, but really measuring the effect it has on you both to select it and to play it and to modify it.
I think we’re going to start seeing a variety of music environments rather soon and developing over the next 25 years. So music that adapts to what you need at a particular moment. I think over the next 25 to 50 years, let me put it this way. All music right now, when there’s a hit, the reason it’s a hit is that a composer and a performer have identified some common quality in that music, something about it, something about the way that particular melody falls that a very large number of people are going to find attractive. I mean, that’s the definition of popularity. Something that literally resonates with many, many people.
So all the music we know that’s popular is actually commonly shared music that takes things that are similar about all of us. But if you take the idea that we’re going to be able to measure more and more your particular mental structures, your particular reactions to a piece of music, your particular needs at a particular moment so I can select music for you, watch you while you’re listening and fine tune the music. If you can imagine completely the opposite thing happening, which is that perhaps 25 to 50 years from now, I can design a piece of music, no so that it appeals to something common in millions of people, but I can design the music so that it’s exactly right for you and only you at this particular moment for your particular experience, things that have happened to you over 20 years, to your particular mental state right now.
Recorded on January 14, 2010