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.

Although the Brain Opera is a natural progression from my work of the past five years, and even from earlier work such as VALIS, there are some particular preoccupations that have driven me to create this piece. First, I do think it is important at the present time to make a strong statement about the possibility of involving general, non-specialized audiences actively in artistic experiences, and that this need not be just a tentative, flaky experiment, but can be a powerful, involving, and complete artistic work. Such models will lead to more knowledgeable, responsive and sensitive listeners, which will be good for everyone. Second, I have been obsessed for years with the theme of how unity and coherence emerge (or are seized by us) from the complexity and chaos of the world around us, and the Brain Opera treats this theme on a large scale. Third, I have long wanted to make a work which shows the world something about the new culture which the MIT Media Lab is trying to forge, where art/science/cognition/theory really are starting to blend into something different. This feeling will, I think, be tangible to anyone who walks into the Brain Opera.

And last, one of my strongest desires in this project has been to ask a lot of questions to which we don't have answers, in the hope that not only will the piece turn out to be something beyond what we can now imagine, but also that many new horizons will be opened for us.

It is hard to foresee what we will learn from watching audiences experience the Brain Opera, and what paths will seem best to pursue afterwards. But I predict that we will go even further towards the vision expressed by Glenn Gould in his 1966 article. I imagine musical instruments built into our environments -- our furniture, clothing, walls, handheld objects -- that will project our conscious and unconscious intentions onto our surroundings. A concert then would not be a special occasion but always around us, meaningful sound responding to our subtle commands, mirroring our attitudes, enhancing our actions at some moments, providing counterpoint or contradiction at others. Perhaps five or ten years down the line we will have developed a Home Opera, designed to be experienced in the place where one is most comfortable, completely vivid and theatrical, yet personalized for and by each individual.

Gould went even further, predicting that "in the electronic age the art of music will become much more viably a part of our lives, much less an ornament to them, and that it will consequently change them much more profoundly." Our goal is to figure out how - in technological, musical, and human terms - to turn Gould's fabulous vision into reality.

In the meantime, I'll content myself with John Cage's statement: "You can think of a piece of music as a representation of a society in which you would be willing to live." Marvin Minsky's "Society of Mind" is such a model for future human society (and not just of the mind), and my hope is that the Brain Opera will give audiences at least a glimpse of this beautiful and stimulating possibility.

Tod Machover
MIT Media Lab