His office, on the fourth floor of the Media Lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), offers spectacular views of the Charles River, Cambridge and Boston. But the views are not what capture the attention of Tod Machover. As a composer, music researcher and director of MIT’s Opera of the Future, he pays more attention to the sounds. Perhaps imprisoned by ambulance sirens, traffic or the sound of the city that echo round the glass walls of his office, the researcher fills his speech with onomatopoeias that embellish his discourse on musicality. From the ‘papapapap’ to the ‘brrrrrr’, and from one of the most powerful technology centers in the world, we learn about the future of music occurring through new instruments, collaborative projects and music as therapy. Let the show begin.
Five minutes ago you were meeting with your students. What were you talking about?
We were talking about many projects. We have several on the occasion of the classical music festival in Lucerne (Switzerland) this summer. It’s a fantastic space because it has the best young musicians in the world. One of the projects is composing a collaborative symphonic theme. On the other hand, I want to invent instruments of the latest generation. In recent decades, we have developed instruments with sensors, technology and laptops that are very powerful. However, we cannot understand music only through a microphone. We need expression, skills and spontaneity. We have to get all these things working together.
So what are the new generation instruments like? What is your idea?
Music is sound and vibration. If I make a sound, I feel it in my body. And the same thing happens if another person makes the sound. I can understand what the body of another person is feeling by the transmission of that sound. And beyond that is synesthesia, a term generally used to describe the connection of multiple senses through music. I hear a note and I imagine a color, for example. I think the instruments of the future need to be felt between various senses.
What form will these instruments have?
They are based on existing instruments, in the body or in the voice. The instruments that encourage interaction are fantastic, like those that we created for children -Beat Bugs and Shaper- ten years ago. They change the sound depending on the grip. From ‘papapa’ to ‘apapappapapappa’ or from ‘brr’ to ‘brrrrrrrrrr’. Along these lines, we plan another instrument that would be based on the performance of a pottery wheel. It would turn and would sound like the shaping of the clay. It’s dynamic and can be modified. It’s like a sculpture or a living organism.
Could we see an orchestra or DJ playing this instrument in a few years?
For a DJ it would be awesome! It would allow for clicking on different themes each time. A computer can do many things but without any complexity. There are better ways of making music. In my case, when I design an instrument, I try to enhance its functionality. Have you ever heard of gamelan? It is a traditional Balinese instrument played by several people at once. It’s like a keyboard with hammers that make sounds like ‘papapapa’. Each person plays a few specific notes, for example, you play only the third and the seventh. Each participant is a piece of the puzzle. At the end, a unified piece is obtained.
What is your goal at MIT as director of your lab?
Music is a very complete experience: it transmits stories and emotions and connects people. My goal is to find all possible ways of creating music that reflects the world as it is so that music becomes a very important part of life.
There is a paradox. Music is everywhere. Everyone has a lot of music on his or her computer, mobile or devices that can be listened to all the time. However, it is a passive act. We almost always listen to it while we are doing something else: reading, driving, walking… One of my goals is to find different ways for people to participate in musical experiences: composing, listening carefully, experimenting…
That’s what the City Symphonies is, for example. It’s about composing a piece that defines a city. How was the last experience of dedicating an opera symphony to Perth (Australia)?
Very good! We’ve already done three. Toronto, the first, was a great experience. I had a year to compose the symphony and did a long piece. The second was for Edinburgh, a short piece of 10 minutes. In Perth, I used the best of the previous two. It’s an isolated and very rapidly growing city. I tried to define what the city is and what it wants to be.
What other projects would you highlight throughout your stay at MIT?
Fifteen years ago, I made the Brainopera. It was a project so that people could experience what happens in your brain when you listen to music. I made an orchestra with nearly a hundred instruments that could be easily used by everyone. People were playing, trying things, listening… And then, in the theater, an ensemble piece was performed. Half of the work was composed by the public and the rest by me. The public was directly part of the creative process.
And did this project help people to understand music better?
Definitely. It is a demonstration of how you can get something great from the collaboration of people. In the same vein, a few years ago we developed the Hyperscore, a computer program to create music and bring it to people without prior knowledge or even with health problems such as depression or physical problems. You don’t know powerful music can become when transmitting sensations.
And that they say that music helps us to have better health… Is it true that music helps make plants grow better?
I think it’s true, especially if it is listened to actively. A few years ago, we started working with Dan Ellsey, a boy with reduced mobility who cannot express himself well. We created sophisticated software that allowed him to express himself. Then, suddenly, we could hear his needs through a musical language created with the software. We can say that we have been able to discover who he is and what he wants through the music. If we use this technology on younger people, I’m sure we can get more and better results.
In fact, one of my students did a PhD on the subject. We developed a musical memory game that can be used to detect Alzheimer’s. We tested it in several hospitals and now people are considering its therapeutic use. The idea is that it can serve to detect Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages so that action can be taken quickly. We believe in a type of therapy for the future based on music.
So we can do therapy with music?
It’s a combination. Music is therapy, meditation and a means of communication to understand oneself and the world in general. It is very personal as well as mysterious.
To finish… what’s coming up next?
It’s called ‘Vocal Vibrations’. We know that the voice is the best instrument we have. Some people are afraid to sing or have some objection. Still, the voice is very powerful. When you say aaaaooooaaaah… it’s like a massage.
Specifically, ‘Vocal Vibrations’ is based on the voice. The spectator walks by a room in which one can interact with voice-based sounds. In addition, we have an object called Orgue that one takes in the hands and which transforms the sound of the voice vibrations. It is heard and felt. Everyone reacts in some way to using it. We did many experiments to find out what happened to people when they used it.
And what were the results?
One of the most striking results is that during the experience people have changes in concentration. Sometimes the tension is progressive and, other times, you can see a peak like ‘Ooooooohhh, I understand what is happening!’ As we have said, there is a future for music in therapy.