Pioneering composer and inventor Tod Machover, 60, is presenting his latest work, Vocal Vibrations, as the inaugural exhibition at Le Laboratoire Cambridge. Opening Oct. 31 and on view through March, the music-filled installation features a vibrating orb device that allows visitors to hold their own voices in hand. Born in New York, Machover received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition from Juilliard. The composer of five operas—including 2012 Pulitzer finalist Death and the Powers—he is the director of the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. He’s also the creator of the Toy Symphony, an international performance and education project, and his inventions include tech-enhanced hyperinstruments used by performers like Yo-Yo Ma and Prince. This summer, he will serve as the composer in residence of the prestigious Lucerne Festival in Switzerland.
Jonathan Soroff: Did you ever want another “d” in your name?
I did, only because everybody spells it wrong. The reason for the one “d” was that my dad, who was a pioneer in computer graphics, was a very smart guy, but spelling wasn’t his strong suit. He always said that he only gave me one “d” so that if someone said it was spelled wrong, he could say, “No, it isn’t.”
[Laughs] You never know what goes on behind closed doors. Honestly, I think a couple of things. Silent Night is a very good opera, but very conservative, about the Christmas night in World War I when the soldiers declared a truce, in maybe 1915. It’s a really great story and a very traditional opera. My work’s not traditional, and I think it’s wonderful that a very unconventional opera with robots and text by Robert Pinsky was even in the running.
Good question. I grew up really not liking opera at all. I played the cello, so I played Bach solo and chamber music and then rock music. With opera, I didn’t like most of the stories. But I realized, when I began making my own music, that all of it is about some kind of human experience, and I got more and more interested in music with words.
When I was at Juilliard, I was kind of Elliott Carter’s protege, and I thought I would write instrumental music. I kept imagining things in my head that were crazy—textures that were difficult to achieve with traditional instruments or layers…and that’s when the light bulb went off that connected me to what my dad did. I thought if I could really master software and technology, I might actually be able to achieve this.
It was. Nobody at Juilliard was interested in technology. It was sort of after the Moog synthesizer and before computers. Back then, the image, for good or bad, if you were a composing student, was to be like Beethoven and compose everything in your head, as if you were deaf. You had to imagine everything in your inner ear, and the idea of trying it out at the piano was laughable.
Absolutely. I wanted not only to make sounds, but I wanted to play with and manipulate my music in a way that only technology offered. Like a sculptor with clay. I wanted to touch it with my hands.
Well, that cello involves a lot of wires and computers, so his best response was when someone asked him, “What would it take for you to stop playing your Stradivarius and tour with this?” You’d expect him to say, “It would have to feel and sound as good,” but what he said was “I’ll tour with this when it’s as easy to get around as my Strad.” Unfortunately, even today, that’s not the case. It still needs a sound engineer, and probably some wires.
I think I’ll glibly say no. I’m at MIT. Marvin Minsky, who invented artificial intelligence, is an idol of mine. He probably would believe they could. But I think the reason to have technology is to allow people to be more human.
Yes, but not just in the stupid sense of it can save you time, or whatever. The idea of the hypercello we built for Yo-Yo Ma was that it would measure his feelings and expression and bring more of that out. The idea that the instrument reads your mind or your body is the point of that. The reason I did Hyperscore [a software program for music composition] is so that someone who hasn’t taken 20 years of music lessons can still make music. I think technology is like art—a way to communicate about life. That implies a sense of caring, and I don’t think a machine can care.
The thing we’re trying to invent now, the technology goes back to the Yo-Yo story. An instrument that becomes part of the performer and sort of disappears into what the artist is doing. We know a lot more now about how to read the mind and body, and we’re inventing the new generation of hyperinstruments to be many, many more degrees in tune to the body and ultimately, hopefully, something as simple as an iPhone. We’re not there, but that’s the goal.
It affects our bodies, emotions and souls very deeply. But I think it goes even beyond that. It grapples with every aspect of existence. The idea that the pianist Jonathan Biss describes—that music like Beethoven’s goes beyond our perception. It encompasses things that are so huge, like the universe, that we can’t countenance.
It could be. But I think it could make you hate somebody, too. Music can do just about anything.