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A Message from our Artistic Director and Composer:

The Brain Opera will premiere at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in New York, from July 23 to August 3. Shows will occur hourly from 1pm to 8pm, each day. Information on how to get tickets will soon appear here. Between now and our Lincoln Center debut, we will be constantly adding new activities to this Web Site, enabling you to:

We are attempting a lot of things in this project that are pretty new - at least WE are still figuring out how to do them - and that's part of the excitement of the "Brain Opera." A group of about 50 of us - musicians, designers, visual artists, hackers, inventors, etc. - are working on the project here at the MIT Media Lab.

We are building an artistic experience that we hope turns out to be a lot more than the sum of our individual contributions. We'd really like you to join us in contributing to the "Brain Opera" from now until Summer 1996, and then beyond to the millenium. Let's discover how friends and strangers, near and far, online and face-to-face, can make surprisingly beautiful music together!

Tod Machover

MIT Media Lab


At Lincoln Center, as at other performance venues, the Brain Opera will occupy three physical spaces and, a wide range of Internet activities will be available to audiences around the world allowing them to observe, contribute and participate.

1. Interactive Display Space: THE PLAZA

A large interactive display, responsive to crowd presence and movement, placed outside to reflect On-Site and Internet BRAIN OPERA activities.

2. Experience Space

A maze of interactive music/image experiences (among them are: forest , rhythm tree , harmonic driving , gesture wall and melody easel ) which can be explored at will, as connections between the various activities - seemingly fragmentary, complex, and been overwhelming at first - will gradually become apparent to the visitor.

3. Performance Space

The final performance space, where all individual audience contributions will be woven into a single, coherent, and exciting 45-minute multimedia performance.

In addition to visiting three physical spaces of the Brain Opera, YOU can be part of the experience through the use of the internet in three ways.

1. Observe

It will be possible to see and hear the Brain Opera activity, including specially scheduled "performances," via the Internet

2. Contribute

Internet users can send personal texts, sounds, music and images to be incorporated into the Brain Opera performances.

3. Participate

Special software will allow Internet users to influence and modify Brain Opera performances spontaneously.


"The developing brain is like a forest within which many different creatures grow, in conflict and in harmony"

The Mind Forest has fifteen hooded "trees" for people to speak and sing into, each unique (try them all!) and offering a private experience to one person at a time. In the Singing Trees, wearing headphones to ensure maximum sound isolation, the individual sings a single note. The computer rewards a well-held, perfectly calm note with a beautiful aura, promoting a mood of concentration and meditation; a less-well-held note creates a more "agitated" musical response. In the Speaking Trees, audience members enter into conversation with Marvin Minsky and record personal memories and opinions, as well as thoughts about music and the mind. Each tree can record the audience member's voice, which is automatically edited, selected and processed, and then incorporated into each Brain Opera Performance.

Pictures you can download: [
Forest Art] [Computer rendition of the Mind Forest] [Architectural design for individual tree units] [Architectural sketch of the individual tree units] [Earlier artistic design for the Forest of Speaking and Singing Trees]

Jump to the other experiences: rhythm tree , harmonic driving , gesture wall , melody easel .


Five larger-than-life-size Gesture Walls turn body gestures into sound and image. By stepping onto a plate mounted invisibly in the floor, a low-voltage electric signal is transmitted through the player's shoes and then broadcast through the body to a set of four sensors located on goosenecks around the perimeter of a giant projection screen. These sensors measure body movement very accurately, allowing the slightest twitch or most dramatic dance to modify and "perturb" ongoing music and moving images displayed on the wall.

Pictures you can download: [Gesture Wall art] [Computer rendition of the Gesture Wall] [An earlier architectural design for the Gesture Wall] [The latest design for the Gesture Wall platforms] [An earlier artistic design for the Gesture Wall.]

Jump to the other experiences: forest , rhythm tree , harmonic driving , melody easel .


Of all Brain Opera activities, this will be most like a traditional video game.

Three separate "driving" units will be contained in a circular, translucent kiosk. Players are seated in front of a graphic screen, with a steering wheel, joystick, and foot pedal as controls.

Using specially-designed software, the player literally "drives" through a piece of music in one of three Harmonic Driving units. Like playing a traditional video game, the user negotiates onrushing paths and trajectories on a video screen, using a specially designed, spring-mounted steering column that measures turn and tilt and bend. Branches in the road - signaled by blue and orange barber poles - cause the music to become "cooler" or "hotter," and the player's micro-steering - whether rhythmic and precise or sinuous and meandering - makes the music become sharp-edged or atmospheric. Both path and music are updated on the fly as the player makes choices, and the consistency of these choices - or "conviction of the interpretation," if you will - is rewarded by a skill rating at the end of the run/piece.

Pictures you can download: [Harmonic Driving Art] [Computer rendition of Harmonic Driving] [The latest architectural design for Harmonic Driving] [An earlier architectural design for Harmonic Driving] [An earlier artistic design for Harmonic Driving]

Jump to the other experiences: forest , rhythm tree , gesture wall , melody easel .


There are three Melody Easels, each designed to accomodate one player and two observers. Seated at a table-like structure, one plays the Melody Easel with the touch of a finger, creating a feeling of subtle articulation and phrasing usually associated with single-line melodic instruments like the violin or saxophone. The movement and touch of the finger as it travels across a specially designed transparent surface not only creates music -- melodic variations and timbral filigrees based on the voice of mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt -- but also a beautiful graphic trace.

Pictures you can download: [Melody Easel Art] [Computer rendition of Melody Easel] [One of the latest architectural sketches of the Melody Easel] [An Earlier artistic design for the Melody Easel]

Jump to the other experiences: forest , rhythm tree , harmonic driving , gesture wall .


The Rhythm Tree is a sculpture with more than 300 networked drum pads mounted on seven giant, circular pods which stretch throughout the Mind Forest. Each individual pad is hand-molded in translucent rubber, and equipped with a special microprocessor and LED display. There is enough intelligence on each pad to allow variation in touch - from the slightest tap to the most powerful pounding - to produce a wide array of sonic results, all controllable with familiarity and skill. Each pad is also connected to many others, like branches on a tree (or synapses in the brain). As the player strikes them, different signals are sent ricocheting through the connected circuits, creating an ever-changing variety of sounds and images.

Pictures you can download: [Rhythm Tree Art] [Computer rendition of Rhythm Tree] [An earlier architectural design for the Rhythm Tree] [An earlier artistic design for the Rhythm Tree]

Jump to the other experiences: forest , harmonic driving , gesture wall , melody easel .

Audio Submission
This is a call for your input to the Brain Opera! We are collecting as many sound-bites as we can from a wide range of sources, and would like to invite you to participate as well. We will incorporate the material you send into the third movement of the live Brain Opera performances, as well as in future on-line incarnations. You can prepare your material in advance and send it to us at any time.

If you have an audio file which is not more than ten seconds in length, you are welcome to contribute it to this public collage. You can do an anonymous ftp to brainop.media.mit.edu, and put your file into the directory entitled "sounds." Further help on how to send us your file is also available.


Performance Space

Visitors can stay in the maze-like lobby space as long as they like. However, every hour there will be a "performance" of the Brain Opera, which everyone will be invited to attend. Each performance will have certain common features, but will also be unique because of the contributions and "personality" of that particular audience group. It is here that the separate fragments of the Brain Opera come together to form a coherent artistic experience.

The Performance Space will be set up like a night club: people will be able to sit at the periphery of the room, or move and dance at the center; images and sounds will be projected on a curved surface at the front of the room, as well as on the floor and ceiling.

Each performance will last approximately 45 minutes and will have three distinct parts, one flowing into the next:

Three performers, playing specially designed gesture instruments and using baton-like "magic wands," will select, modify, and combine the various strands of music in real-time.

In addition, sensors in the room's carpet and radar beams at head level will measure audience movement and energy level during the performance, using this information to automatically influence the musical build-up and formal shape of the piece.


The Brain Opera is a project founded on interactivity between all its performers. Each and every single one of you out there is a performer!

We welcome any comments or suggestion ! Feel free to write to us!
Please join our mailing list so you can stay up to date on every new development at the Brain Opera.

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If you are interested in finding out more about any aspect of the Brain Opera, about how YOU can make a personal contribution to the development of the project, this is your chance ! We will do our best to answer your email personally within 2 days.

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"What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle. Our species has evolved many effective although imperfect methods, and each of us individually develops more on our own. Eventually, very few of our actions and decisions come to depend on any single mechanism. Instead, they emerge from conflicts and negotiations among societies of processes that constantly challenge one another."
-- Marvin Minsky, from The Society of Mind

The Brain Opera will be loosely based on Marvin Minsky's seminal book, The Society of Mind, in which he proposes that human personality is not controlled by a centralized "conductor" in the brain, but rather emerges from seemingly unintelligent and unconnected mental processes, or "agents." With Minsky's theory as a metaphor, participants will reach a new sensitivity to the many different parts of the mind that are engaged when we enjoy and respond to music.

And we hope that a new kind of music will emerge from this project, representing a middle ground between the rigid rules of the classical tradition and the anarchy of the Cageian avant-garde.

The Brain Opera is not structured around a "story," as in traditional opera, but around an all-encompassing emotional and psychological experience in which the audience - both real and online - will be drawn into the mysteries of music and the human mind, to discover and explore the interplay of sensory perception, musical structure, language, memory, thinking and emotion, and actively take part in creating a multimedia work of art in which the composer's musical concepts will be enhanced and transformed by material emerging from the individual and collective contributions of the audience.

We expect the audience/participants to experience this opera at many levels (engaging the diversity of Minskian "agents" in their minds):

We look forward to sharing this journey with you!

Marvin Minsky's web page]
[The Voyager CD-Rom site, featuring "Society of Mind"]
[A short biography of Marvin Minsky at this site]

Brain Opera Libretto

Below are several short text examples, taken from interviews with Marvin Minsky which were conducted by Tod Machover between 1993 and 1996. These texts, about the mind and music, have provided much of the textual material for Tod Machover's vocal compositions in the Brain Opera, and therefore comprise a kind of libretto. These text examples are provided below:

1. The mind is too complicated to summarize.
2. There are probably several hundred little pieces of brain that each of us uses.
3. There's no instruction manual and no way to debug it.
4. You never do anything in just one way.
5. It wasn't designed very well by any organized process.
6. That comes from 400 million years of evolution.
7. The things that look simple to us are usually very complicated, and the things that look complicated are usually much simpler.
8. Music is a very mysterious thing.
9. Scientifically there don't seem to be any good theories of it.
10. We don't know where it came from.
11. You don't see animals tapping their feet to rhythm.
12. Its probably one of the most intricate activities we have.
13. It seems like its meaningful.
14. You can't help relating it to things.
15. What I'm saying is its not a natural thing.
16. Every part of your brain has to make sense of it.
17. Its got phrases and clauses and sentences.
18. What story is this like?
19. Your memory has to find something!
20. Sometimes the associations are very compelling.
21. What right does Schumann have to order me around?
22. How come people don't get angry when music affects their emotions?
23. Some people use it for influencing crowds and other people use it to make people think more and get away from the crowd.
24. You only live a hundred years.
25. People have no respect for their minds.
26. Especially from thinking about music.
27. ....how to think, how to use the time, how to recognize how much time you're using......
28. One thing that music does is it makes you able to think three or four things at a time.
29. There's a lot happening.
30. This is very important.
31. The things that we call intelligence are nothing more than the ability to manage time better.
32. Thinking about the mind might sensitize people to how silly it is to spend a day thinking nothing at all.
33. Are there people who are more creative than others?
34. What a genius is, is just someone who has been very lucky.
35. To be a really good composer you need ten or fifteen tricks.
36. But everybody has most of these things.
37. Everyone is immensely creative.
38. It just seems a lot better because you can't do it.
39. We know a lot about emotions.
40. We don't know much about thinking at all.
41. Each emotion is just a kind of thinking.
42. Music changes your mood very directly.
43. No one knows; no one studied this very well.
44. What's going on?!
45. People don't study this; people don't ask that question.
46. Why do we like music?
47. Its taboo.
48. Isn't it strange?!

Click here to reach the "Minsky Text" realtime Java applet. Please note that you will need a Java-enabled browser to play.


The Story of the Brain Opera

"You know, you can always begin anywhere." --John Cage

The Story of the Brain Opera is about its history as a project, and the ideas and texts on which it is based. Its roots in the thought of Marvin Minsky, its progression during the past three years, the successive stages of its iterative design process, and the team of people who have shaped it along the way. From this page, you can link to information about Marvin Minsky's "Society of Mind," a welcome from our director, bios and web pages of the individuals on our team, the Brain Opera "libretto," and an archive of material related to our project. The contents of the archive include the work of related research groups at the Media Lab, architectural drawings of the Brain Opera set, technical designs for the experiences, articles by Tod Machover, and theses by his students.

The following is excerpted from "The Brain Opera and Active Music," by Tod Machover:

Thirty years ago, the great pianist and essayist Glenn Gould published an article on the future of music recording (High Fidelity, April 1966) in which he said: "In the best of all possible worlds, art would be unnecessary. Its offer of restorative, placative therapy would go begging a patient. The professional specialization involved in its making would be presumption...The audience would be the artist and their life would be art."

As someone with many of the usual "professional" music credentials, I was surprised on rediscovering Gould's article recently that my own work in music and technology has evolved in exactly this direction. In fact, I now believe that the highest priority for the coming decade or two is to create musical experiences and environments that open doors of expression and creation to anyone, anywhere, anytime. To accomplish this without producing numbing background music - but music that enhances the senses and stimulates the mind - is the real trick! I believe that such "active music" could be one of our most powerful tools for discovering the unity and coherence that underlies the chaos and complexity of everyday life.

My view of technology has always been that it should respond to human intentions, rather than simulate or replace them, and I started developing Hyperinstruments at the MIT Media Lab in 1985 towards this end. The first generation of hyperinstruments was designed for virtuosic professional musicians, such as Yo-Yo Ma. These hyperinstruments measured many nuances of performance expression, using this information to enhance and expand the instrument's capabilities. Starting in 1991, we began building hyperinstruments for non-professional music lovers. Our Joystick Music system allows a piece of music to be steered, modified, and shaped by manipulating two videogame joysticks. A Sensor Chair, designed for magicians Penn & Teller, uses an invisible electric field to detect body motion and turn it into sound. Such instruments are easy to learn but difficult to master, with enough depth to make them worth practicing and exploring.

Central to the Brain Opera idea is the work of Marvin Minsky, a colleague of mine at the MIT Media Lab, and someone I have known since my student days at Juilliard in the mid 1970s. Although there are obvious similarities to be found on every level of the Brain Opera to Minsky's philosophy of mind -- and indeed the "libretto" of the opera is taken from interviews I have done with him over the past two years -- the connection to Minsky is deeper and more subtle than that. Marvin Minsky is the first person I ever met who dared to ask questions about music so basic that they seemed naive, yet so perceptive that no one has yet answered them. Why do we like music? Why do we spend so much time with an activity that has little or no practical benefit? Why does music make us feel? And think? And are feeling and thinking the same? Is music the activity that most deeply unifies our complex selves?

With Minsky, such questions lead to a whirlwind of speculations about where music comes from and what it tells about us as human beings.

Perhaps music is one of our capacities acquired latest in evolution, and so is "messiest," having had to share its footprint with numerous mental agents already entrenched. Perhaps because of this, music has no brain center all its own, but rather touches a very large number of other mental functions ("gut" feeling, storytelling, mathematics, movement, speech processing, etc.) and somehow synthesizes them. Perhaps music allows us to experiment with thinking, in a liberated fashion because the results of such "musical thinking" have no repercussions in the "real world." Perhaps -- as John Cage might have said -- music is a way of preparing our minds and our personalities -- to finally throw away music altogether and experience the world directly.

We have designed our Brain Opera experiences to stimulate audiences to reflect on such questions, and on how the independent fragments and layers of music come together to form complex yet unified sonic images. And one of our deepest hopes for the Brain Opera is that it will encourage people to be excited by their own minds, and by the desire to "look inside and hear what is going on" (Minsky).

It is this kind of audience involvement -- not the mere manipulation of our hyperinstruments -- that makes the Brain Opera truly an "opera." Although the work does not have a linear narrative, which I have avoided at every step of the design process, it certainly has LOTS of voices - professional and amateur, singing and speaking, individual and communal - and the whole texture is actually very vocal, even "operatic." More significantly, the Brain Opera does have a significant dramatic progression, which is the voyage of each audience member through the maze of fragments, thoughts and memories, to collective and coherent experience. Just the process of understanding the scenario of each instrument -- how it is played and what it means -- and seeing how these turn into full musical structures in the performance, is a very rich and involving story in itself.