Brain Opera

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, July 1996)

Tod Machover, Professor of Music and Media at MIT’s Media Lab, is the creator of Brain Opera — an interactive on-line music event which will premiere  this summer at the Lincoln Center and simultaneously on computer screens all over the world.

Machover, a charming and lively man, credits his parents for his inspiration to create interactive technology for music. “My Mom teaches creative music to kids and my father worked in computer graphics, so there was always a lot of avant-garde technology in the house. I went to Julliard and got into comuputers there, and then went to Paris and worked with Pierre Boulez. I knew that computers had enormous potential for the arts, and I wanted to make an interactive technology for music. I’m a cellist, so I started by building a hypercello for Yo Yo Ma. Strings are so sensitive, subtle, rich and complex — and I needed to be able to catch every nuance, every gesture, every way the color changes — so I knew I had to have a very clever technology.”

Yo Yo’s hypercello was the first of series of hyperinstruments which Machover designed by recording and observing tradition instruments  — keyboard, percussion, guitar — and virtuosos performers like Yo Yo Ma, the fabulous mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, and the artist formerly known as Prince.  “But I wanted to make musical experiences for everyone,” says Machover. “Brain Opera is the culminating point of the idea of letting audiences become part of the performance.” In the final performance, the Lincoln Center audience and the internet players all influence the final sound. “On a T3 bandwidth provided by NYNEX, we’ll be able to broadcast for free onto our web sites, multicasting sounds, so the audience can click on and interact,” says Machover.

The overture is a musical arcade (designed by architect Ray Kinoshita), featuring “harmonic driving“, where the player drives through a piece of music as if it were an obstacle course in a video game. “It’s fast and loud, and it tests your reflexes — like a piece of music by Paganini, or heavy metal guitar, that kind of dexterity,” says Machover.

The hyperinstruments are a Singing Tree that responds to the sound of your voice (“hypersensitive, like an Italian sports car“) a Rhythm Tree that creates an interactive  percussive  beat, a Melody Easel that allows you to draw a melody with an electronic baton, a gesture wall that makes sounds from the movements of your body.

“The body sends out electricity and this machine takes that information and turns it into music,” says Machover.

Machover showed me the workshop — a huge black room at the Media Lab known as the Cube, which is filled with computers and prototypes for the hyperinstruments. Then he demonstrated the melody easel for me, waving a digital baton in the air as three different speakers responded with sound. As he waved his hands in the air, making music, I remembered the scene at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Francois Truffaut, playing the space scientist, communicates with alien spaceships through music, and everyone watching feels transported and filled with light.

The beautiful, beloved voice of Lorraine Hunt began to rise and spread out through the room, in sweet, sad layers of sound, accompanied by a visual chorus of flashing colored lights, magically transforming the empty, mechanical space into a few moments of unearthly beauty.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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