Skip to content
Who's in the Video
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;[…]

Composer Tod Machover reflects upon a childhood filled with piano lessons and computer graphics.

Question: How did being raised by a piano teacher and a computer scientist influence your growing up?

Tod Machover: Yeah, I definitely think that in my case, I come from a very close family and my parents, they’ve really had a strong influence on my growing up and especially with what I ended up doing. It’s actually kind of weird, I think sometimes.  But, they’re very different in a lot of ways and I think for some reason, it’s been very important to me to find out how to bring those cultures together.  They actually still to this day get along extremely well, but they’re so different. 

My mom grew up in upstate New York, a kind of European, intellectual environment.  She studied piano her whole growing up; she’s really good and went to Juilliard, so she was a terrific pianist.  Around the time I was born, she decided not to concertize, but to teach.  She’s a very energetic and creative person, so she really, I think, developed a personal style with teaching, both excellent piano teaching, but always cared a great deal about encouraging all of her students to make their own music and learn theory in really inventive ways. 

When I was a little kid, we used to have a big plastic staff that filled the whole living room that had a bass cleft and a treble cleft and you’d throw a bean bag on these things and either sing the note or jump to the note, it was all fun.  And she also had us do things like, I remember at the end of a piano lesion, I was sort of her guinea pig because I was the oldest of three kids, and she’d say, “Okay, lessons are over.”  There’d be three or four of us around and she’d say, I’ll give you ten minutes to go through the house and everybody bring back some object that makes an interesting sound.  Anything you want to.  So, we’d run around and bring back a book, or a pot, or a lamp, or whatever.  And then we’d sit down and she’d say, “Okay, what sound does that one make? Oh, that’s interesting.  Great.  What’s the loudest sound you can make with that?  Oh, what’s the softest sound? Oh, that’s interesting.  Okay.  What does it sound like if you play those two at the same time?  Oh, that’s interesting.  If you were going to give out a word to describe that sound, what would you say? Oh, peaceful.  Oh great.  So, now we’ve got these sounds, these words.  How can we tell a story with these?  Oh great, okay, well we want to start with that, terrific.” And so we’d make up a little story and who would go first, second and what the story was, and then you’d play this thing. And then she’d say, “Okay, for next week, when you’re home, see if you can make a picture of what we did so when you come back next week, we can try it again.” 

And in that little bit of time, so many important things were there.  First of all, the fact that music wasn’t just something that a bunch of dead people had written on published music books that you had to learn.  It was something that you could make yourself.  It wasn’t just a particular system of music that was in those notes, music existed in the world around you, and it’s people who take that and put it into a system.  That was incredibly important.  You could make music with other people.  And then the business of drawing a picture, what it basically said is notation, which is such a barrier for so many people learning to read and write the notes.  Notation is nothing more than a way of remembering what you did so you can do it again and maybe interpret it differently and vary it.  So, really powerful.  So, I think growing up with that training and her open mind about music was important. 

My dad, he’s not tone deaf, but he’s not a musician, at all.  He didn’t grow up with music, but he’s an incredibly visual person.  He grew up in the Midwest, incredibly different background.  As kind of intellectual as my mom’s background was, kind of high culture, my mom, I don’t think she heard a single piece of pop music before she went to Juilliard.  I mean literally.  She just didn’t listen to that.  My dad grew up in a very popular culture environment.  He probably didn’t hear a piece of symphonic music until he met my mom.  And he’s a cartoonist, so visually oriented, but really always made caricatures of people and was quite good, and studied engineering.  Very early on he had this idea that computers were going to be big, but the only way that they’d be useful to people is if you could interact with them in the most natural way and I think partly the field of graphics was just starting, but especially because he was a visual person, his idea of intuitive was, show me a picture.  Show me something on the screen that I can manipulate. 

And before the late ‘50’s, it was all punch cards.  I mean, you didn’t have anything to look at that shows you – you could make a picture let alone have a picture showing you anything about your data or information.  So, he was involved with one of the first companies in the New York area making graphic displays.  And I have a really different feeling about that. I found his office intriguing and really kind of strange.  It didn’t feel very natural.  It was kind of in a big old industrial building.  You’d go up in a slightly creaky elevator and there was all kinds of electronic test equipment and people building things.  And the thing that was really attractive there was they had some of the first displays, and at that point you had light pens, these pretty fragile metal things.  They were always tethered with a wire to the rest of the device.

But gosh, you’d see these luminescent line drawings and there were some of the early games, and you could change a face, and you had text on the screen.  And it was really exciting.  It’s funny, it’s not like technology now where it’s in all of our consciousness and you just know that Apple is going to come out any day with something really interesting and it’s going to be better than what just happened.  This stuff back then wasn’t obvious that it was going to go anywhere.  The academia and the military were using these things, but I didn’t really have any particular sense that this was the future, and oh my gosh.  But it was very, very interesting to see these things develop from the very beginning and see the components over here and the first tests over here.  And it was a business, so it wasn’t academia.  They were selling these things and they had to work as well as they could work at that point.  

So I think that was quite interesting.  And I think, in general, the idea of this very organic intellectual, artistic music culture and the populace visual technological kind of industrial culture, my mom who is actually, well I don’t know if elitist is actually the word, you know; knew the very best performances and knew the artists that she thought were the most interesting including contemporary ones.  Because of both of their interests, we listened to a lot of John Cage, and Morton Subotnick, and European electronic music.  And I was just interested in how different these cultures were and how I was drawn to both of them. 

It was quite a lively household I think.  We went to a lot more really interesting, edgy art events whether it was just seeing Pablo Casals playing the cello, or there was a movement in the New York area in the 1960’s called EAT, experiments in art and technology.  Bell Lab technicians and artists in the New York scene.  My dad was very involved in that so we’d got to a gallery show with you know, really wild – I remember one was something where there were mice in a cage and a little robot that was building towers with blocks and the mice were knocking it down, and the robot arm would put them back up.  And this was very early and you know, why would somebody do that?  And it was quite interesting.  And I think we were in the middle of interesting events more often than I am able to drag my teenaged girls to interesting events.  It was very interesting growing up, I think. 

Recorded on January 14, 2010