Machover unveils his "hyperinstruments" on a grand scale this week with the "Brain Opera." Part concert, part interactive fun house, it debuts in New York at Lincoln Center's much-anticipated Festival '96, and will travel to a dozen cities including Chicago, Paris and Tokyo. Don't expect a plot, sets or the fat lady. And caffeinate before you go, because you'll hav to work. The opera's not finished; each night the audience -- both live and online -- will help compose it.
"Brain Opera" is an homage of sorts to the work of Machover's mentor, Marvin Minsky, the Yoda-like mega-intellectual who has spent the past forty-odd years examining the relationship between music, our brains, and society. Minsky often asks questions like, Why do we spend so much time on music when it has little or no practical value?
"I think one of the big taboos is this kind of 'right-brain, left-brain' thing," Machover explains. "One of the things that 'Brain Opera' puts on the table is that thinking and feeling are a lot closer than we ever thought--that logic ain't so logical."
An opera whose conceptual dimensions make Wagner seem a miniaturist, whose production utilizes some of the world's most dazzling media technology, and whose cast includes professional and amateur musicians, playing in towns and cities around the country--at the same time. Machover sits between the worlds of futurist new music and hyper-advanced technology--the perfect person to shepherd serious music into the cyber age.
Mr. Machover, 42, directs the Experimental Media Facility at M.I.T., where he acts as an American counterpart to his onetime mentor Pierre Boulez, even though his music owes as much to jazz and rock as to Serialism. ....
"Brain Opera" is something altogether different. "It does just about everything differently than a traditional opera," Mr. Machover said, and he was not exaggerating.
Lincoln Center Festival '96, the performing-arts jamboree that opens on Monday, should at least offer the charm of contrast. The three-week festival, organized by John Rockwell, features works by Robert Wilson, Merce Cunningham, Tod Machover, and other famously progressive artists.
Mr. Machover, standing in one corner, holds a wired baton in the air, conducting an invisible synthesized chorus whose sounds react to his gestures.
These are prototypes, works in progress, for a huge musical composition Mr. Machover is calling "The Brain Opera," which will be performed at Lincoln Center in July. It requires a forest of computers, fast interaction with the Internet and software that is state of the art; much of it is still being refined. It will be a piece of participatory musical theatre, a high-tech arcade, a celebration of technological possibility and an attempt to demonstrate a theory of intelligence.
Tod Machover, a composer and professor at the MIT Media Lab, wants to do for musical performance what AI guru Marvin Minsky did for cognitive science -- blow it wide open.
In cognitive science, "Minsky showed that there are a lot of relatively dumb 'agents' that work together" to coordinate thinking, explains Machover. Machover is using that idea to create Brain Opera, a musical experience in which audience members -- instead of a single composer -- help drive the sound.
Brain Opera ushers in a new aria.
Machover's dream is to use technology to turn everyone into a musician. "I was reading this 1965 article by [virtuoso pianist] Glenn Gould," says Machover, "and I came across a part in which Gould says that in the ideal world, people should be able to attune performance recordings of his work to their own preferences.
"'The audience would be the artist and their life would be art', were Gould's words. And it struck me that that is what I'm trying to do: turn audiences into artists."
In the long term, Machover aims to do more than concoct neat interactive gadgets. He wants to transform the nature of performance itself. All of Machover's ambitions will come together in the Brain Opera, his biggest, most outrageous, and most mysterious project to date. Big, because it will premiere at New York's Lincoln Center Festival next summer, then become part of the InterOpera, a yearly music festival in Tokyo. Outrageous, because "it will be unlike anything the world has seen, heard -- or interacted with -- before," Machover promises. Somehow, you believe him when he says this. Mysterious, because even Machover isn't sure what the end musical result will be.
Machover is a musico-techno bilingual who seems born to steer music into the twenty-first century. He and his MIT buddies are working in a field so young that it is analogous to the dawn of the automobile, when inventors, not yet totally grasping the implications of their breakthroughs, were basically putting engines on bicycle or wagon chassis. As in early television, which was little more than radio with pictures, Machover not only is making music for a new era, he is scrambling to invent new instruments and performance spaces to fit the music as he goes along.