The Brain Opera is a new interactive performance designed and composed by Tod Machover of the MIT Media Lab. It makes use of custom-made electronic instruments, an extension of the electronically enhanced "hyperinstruments" that Machover has been developing over the past decade. The Brain Opera is currently being performed at Lincoln Center in New York City, but it is also a global performance that is wired into the Internet.
Each performance of the Brain Opera consists of two parts: an introductory period during which the audience gets to explore, experiment with and play with a variety of Machover's instruments (including large percussive devices that resemble neurons), and a more formal, 45-minute musical event orchestrated by three conductors. The music incorporates recordings just made by the incoming audience, along with material and musical contributions from participants on the World Wide Web. The Brain Opera will tour after it completes its run at Lincoln Center on August 3.
Scientific American caught up with Tod Machover during a lull in his frantic schedule (the Brain Opera takes place every hour on the hour from 1 PM to 7 PM daily). He shared with us some of his vision of melding music, science and technology:
SA: You have stated that the Brain Opera was inspired by ideas from Marvin Minsky, also at the Media Lab. How do Minsky's philosophy of the mind find their way into the Brain Opera?
TM: Yes, Minsky is at the heart of the Brain Opera; the "libretto" is taken from interviews I've done with him over the past couple years. For a long time I've found his ideas about music very stimulating, although they are not widely known. I first contacted Minsky when I was a student at the Juliard School in New York, some 20 years ago. I was a fan of his, I wanted to meet him. Later, when I had moved to IRCAM in Paris, he agreed to come and give a colloquium. He gave a fascinating discussion about Beethoven's music as a kind of "learning machine."
There are some basic questions about music that people almost never address: Why did music arise in all cultures? How does music evolve? What happens to the mind when we are listening to music? Nobody talks about music as having intrinsic meaning, how it engages the mind. How do nonverbal reactions connect to the world? Minsky is one of the few people to look at emotions and music and seek the connections. He asks the bold questions about how it may work.
People working on artificial intelligence (AI) learned quickly that we did not know enough about the mind to make a convincing model of it. Minsky has provided a general model that changes how we think about the mind. He sees the mind not as an orchestra, with a conductor directing all of the action, but rather the opposite: it is a bunch of agents running around who collectively find a way to organize. My interest lies in understanding the balance between central organization and anarchy--in our minds and in our lives. The Brain Opera is intended to encourage audiences to reflect on this process.
SA: In what sense is this performance an "opera"? Why did you use that very traditional-sounding term in the name?
TM: I deliberately wanted the title to be provocative. And I wanted to put those words together, "brain" and "opera." There are a lot of things I want people to think about, a lot of dichotomies I want them to reconsider. The old right brain-left brain gobbledygook is not the way that people really think. The split between art and technology is another old division, another false one.
At last night's performance [of Machover's "Hyperstring Trilogy," which
includes one piece for electronically enhanced cello], everything worked
fine with the technology--what went wrong was that the cello's A string
broke at the very beginning of the piece. It was the one thing I hadn't
anticipated, and it made me realize that strings are technology too.
My message is to forget about dichotomies. The Brain Opera is an opera, even if it does not tell a story in the usual way. It is a psychological journey with voices--so I do consider it an opera.