Tod Machover

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.

SA: How have audiences responded to the Brain Opera so far?

TM: We are watching their reactions carefully. So far I haven't had a chance to watch the audience playing with the instruments; I'll have a chance to do that in the coming days.

The audience has been very diverse, with lots of older people as well as a lot of kids. Interestingly, the older folks have been especially active with the instruments. In general, the people who come to this with an open mind will enjoy it more.

We have misjudged one area: people want more information ahead of time about what to expect and what to do when they enter the "experience space." We went to an extreme in making the experience self-explanatory and letting people learn themselves what to do with the instruments. Now we are providing more information--but we're doing it personally, with guides not with written instructions.

SA: What do you see as the primary rationales (whether aesthetic or philosophical) for combining music and interactive electronic technology?

TM: There is a deep reason for interactivity. Works of art should be stimulating. They should wake people up rather than acting like a sedative. I hope that people will come out of the Brain Opera asking for more from their art.

The goal is for the audience to get involved with the performance. We don't want the audience to pay attention to the technology. In fact, we've made a great effort to keep all the wires out of sight.

We are searching for something between top-down authority and complete anarchy--the interesting balance in between. We live in a very fragmented world in which people often feel out of control. What we are doing here is more than putting together notes of music; we are trying to touch people's lives. The hope is that art can provide a model for how people can come together and interact in other aspects of their lives.

The traditional concert model has all the work done on stage, finished ahead of time and then organized by the conductor--it is like the traditional model of the mind. As a result, of all the arts, music requires the most work because the imagination has to fill in all the details. The seriousness with which people approach music is frightening; we need to do something because people are forgetting how to listen.

SA: How do the ideas in the Brain Opera extend your previous work with electronically enhanced "hyperinstruments"?

TM: My work on hyperinstruments started with simple instruments, like the piano. Developing a hypercello for Yo-Yo Ma proved much more difficult. We placed electrical sensors on the bow but the readings kept coming out weird. It turned out that his own body electricity was affecting the sensors.

About five years ago, that experience gave me the idea of making instruments for audiences, instruments that respond to peoples' movements and gestures. The technology could respond directly to what you intend to do; it is a way of bringing music to people who don't normally get involved with this stuff. That is what the Brain Opera grew out of.

SA: Do you consider interactivity to be an important element for the future of music? For instance, is this classical music's equivalent of the electric guitar--a way to get people from all walks of life excited by and involved in music?

TM: It is really hard to say at this point. This technology is so new, it is premature to answer. One crucial direction in the arts is to break down boundaries between audiences and the creator, between the finished work and the set of possibilities of what that work could be. This goal is important on a practical level because we must find a way to get audiences to wake up. Any way that it can be done is worth exploring.

One of the great things about technology is that it can break down barriers, such as the difficulty of mastering a musical instrument or the mystery of learning musical technique. Technology lets people tap skills that they already had; it lets people use their intuition to make creative decisions without having the detailed knowledge. It will change the way that we think about concerts.

SA: Will you be exploring further the possibilities of music and performance on the Internet? Are there things you would have liked to do in the Brain Opera that the technology does not yet allow?

TM: Right now, you still have to come to the performance to experience the Brain Opera. I would love to do a home opera next. It might be like elevator music, present right where you happen to be, but turned into something uplifting rather than mind-numbing.

The Internet is slightly puzzling because it is changing so fast. There are lots of problems still; it is quite primitive. The big advantage of the Internet is that it is the only medium we have that allows large numbers of people to be in a collective space together. For getting music or any kind of information out, broadcasting is better. But for getting instantaneous response, we need the Internet.

This is a transitional period. It is still a little too hard to transmit sounds, a little too hard to download instruments [which the Brain Opera allows], a little too hard to show who is online. But the time when we can do these things is not that far off. With the Brain Opera, we've put our fingers on most of the interesting issues. We will be experimenting further with them over the next two years.

We have to find a way to make public places and the home more connected. I think that will happen, and both spaces will be richer for it. Los Angeles has the right idea: the people developing the new concert hall there are finding ways to connect the hall to the local schools. We need more of that kind of thinking.