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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;[…]

Tod Machover thinks back to his first composition, and describes his process for ingesting music.

Question: What was the first song you composed?

Tod Machover: I don’t actually remember the first song I composed.  I think probably the first, you know, we did a lot of these creative activities growing up.  I think, I laugh because my mom is also, on one hand an incredibly creative pedagog and is very good at drawing people out too.  But she is also a pretty strong personality, so I’m thinking the probably the first piece I composed is probably when she told me, “Oh, you should probably write a piano piece.”  “Are you writing your piano piece?”  Or something like that maybe.  So, there’s probably some piece maybe when I was in middle school that I can’t remember now. 

I did take composition lessons when I was in high school, so I wrote piano pieces.  I wrote some chamber music.  I don’t think any of that was particularly interesting.  I don’t remember too much of it. 

I went to Fieldston here in New York, quite an interesting creative school.  And I actually have more close friends who have stayed friends from high school at Fieldston than I do from Juilliard, as a matter of fact.  There are a lot of like-minded spirits.  And one of my friends there was a very good writer; he is now a big screenwriter in Hollywood, and a terrific musician.  So, the two of us had a king of two-man musical group.  And I’d put headphones, there was no such thing as am amplified cello at that point, so I took headphones, turned my cello on it’s side, kind of like a gigantic bass, and put headphones and clamp them around the belly of the cello so they were like a microphone, they amplified the cello, and he played guitar and keyboard and we wrote a lot of songs together. 

So, the first songs that I really like, were actually pop songs that we did together and we had tape recorders at home and I used to go into the studio and record multiple tracks, or change the quality of the sound, things like that. 

And then, the first music that I remember really investing in that I composed was kind of the second I got to college, to the University of California, Santa Cruz.  And they started out being for a music history course, or a music theory course, or a composition course.  So, not really where you’d expect to do anything interesting, but I think the bug of writing music had just been growing in me and that was the right environment for me to say, “Oh my gosh, this is me.”  I’ve got a million ideas and I want to have people play these pieces.  And there are things I want to think about in terms of structure, or how I want people to listen.  So, I wrote quite a bit that first year at Santa Cruz and kind of kept going. 

Question: What is your process for listening to music?

Tod Machover: The way I listen to music goes in waves depending on a lot of things.  How busy I am, if I’m in between composition projects, if I’m starting a new project.  So, the only time I listen to the radio for music is with my daughter’s when I’m driving them to school, or driving them somewhere. I think they’d kill me if I put the radio on to a station that I wanted to listen to.  It’s always one of their stations.  So, I listen to a lot of, I mean, they’re 15 and 12.  I must say, just in this last year, they’re taste has evolved from – “evolved,” – it has changed from really vanilla, top 40, either totally pop or hip hop, you know those kind of two kinds of stations these days.  And but now they listen to a lot more kind of Indy music and so I listen to a lot of music that teenagers are listening to because I’m around them. 

Then I exercise – I do rowing on a rowing machine– we live on a farm right outside of, right near Boston.  And I have a big barn that I converted to my music studio, so I go there early in the morning and the first thing I do is rowing.  And that’s when I listen to a lot of music.  So, I row for about 40-45 minutes every morning and put in my iPod and it’s a huge range.  That’s when I listen to either things that I just love and know very well and just want to pay attention, it’s also where I listen to things that are new that I want to get to know.  And things that are new might be new recordings of traditional repertoire by people who I really like.  There’s a pianist name Pierre LaJollamarwho I’ve known for years who’s a specialist in contemporary music, but has been recording a lot of Bach and every time he comes out with something new I’ll listen to that very carefully.  I listen to new music by composers who are interesting to me.  I listen to some; I don’t know if I want to call it pop, but it’s some interesting artist that gets my attention, I listen to in the mornings. 

But strangely, the thing I listen to 75% of the time, when I’m exercising with my headphones on is English Tudor/Elizabethan music, so music from about 1450 to the early 1600’s.  And this is music that has attracted me for years, probably ever since I was in high school.  I love Bach, I love Beethoven, I love Mozart, I love the Beatles, I love you know, Stockhausen, I love many things.  But for some reason I come back to Elizabethan music because it’s a little bit like the Beatles.  It has – I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s English, England has had a lot of really bad periods of music, but it’s had several amazing periods where they’ve found an incredible balance, not just between music that’s a rather complex and also pretty direct.  Like the Beatles. 

Everybody likes it because the tunes are memorable, I mean, any Beatles song is perfect.  It gets to you right away.  But if you look at the orchestration and the way the voices blend, and the way the instruments are used, and if you listen carefully to subsidiary voices which are not the main baseline to the main harmony, it’s very, very – I don’t know if complex is the word, but it’s very, very rich; much more than most pop music.  So, it’s managed to combine complexity and simplicity in a very special way.  And I think it took influences from all around the world.  England’s a little isolated, so when it clicks – and Tudor and Elizabethan music like that.  It’s extremely calming.  I mean, it always takes me to another place, it’s also very, very stable and simple at the same time, you know, there are these melodic lines that do the craziest things.  Much more interesting than what people were doing in other countries.  And it’s also harmonic.  The English learned, in my view, how to use harmony much earlier than the French or the Italians, or the Germans.  So, you had these crazy lines colliding against each other whether it’s string music or vocal music.  And at the same time, the beautiful chord progressions that are very modern in a lot of ways. 

So, I just keep discovering new music from that period.  New recordings, or somebody will discover at some castle a trove of music that nobody had ever played before and for some reason I listen to that a lot. 

I almost never these days sit down with a CD or my laptop and just listen to a piece with a score.  I probably would do that while I’m exercising.

Question: Are there days you crave silence?

Tod Machover: I love silence.  And one of the paradoxes about the way I live and also about my work is that definitely one of the reasons I went into music, and especially into composing is that I love setting up an environment where I can be by myself for long periods of time and have everything as quiet as possible, either to think about sound, or to think about ideas, or just to focus on things that are important to me.  So, I do.  The barn where I work, it’s only 15 minutes or so from Harvard square, so It’s very close to the center of Boston, but it happens to be a total oasis.  It’s completely quiet in there.  You’d think you were out in the forest somewhere.  And at the same time, I work at MIT which is – you’ve got this lab which is the center of high technology and new ideas and there are people all over the place and it’s a very beautiful building actually, but it’s quite intense and there’s always people who want to talk to you about something. 

So, I kind of go back and forth.  But one of the things I like most of all is being in my study, in my barn, with absolutely no sound anywhere thinking about something.  Yeah, it’s extremely important to me.

Recorded on January 14, 2010