Pure Genius

Q&A: Tod Machover, composer and inventor

Q&A: Tod Machover, composer and inventor

Posting in Cities

The man behind Guitar Hero and a robotic opera is in the midst of a new musical composition -- with help from the entire city of Toronto.

When the Toronto Symphony Orchestra asked musical innovator Tod Machover to direct and curate its annual New Creations Festival for 2013, he happily agreed. When they later asked if he would also compose a piece for the event, his mind went straight to "something that will make a difference," he says. "I always try to think big."

Machover was working on that ambitious piece when we spoke at the end of 2012. A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City will premiere in March, and Machover expects to have incorporated submissions from more than 10,000 Toronto-based contributors by then. It's not crowd-sourcing, he says, but rather musical mass collaboration.

This isn't the first time he's found himself on the "bleeding edge" (his words) of musical innovation. In the 1980s, he designed "hyperinstruments" for Prince and Yo-Yo Ma. That same technology later inspired the Rock Band and Guitar Hero video games. He has been a professor in the MIT Media Lab since it was founded in 1985, and last year his robotic opera, Death and the Powers, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Machover spoke with us about his past and present creations.

You've been on the cutting edge of innovation in music and technology for several decades now. How does this project with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra fit into any current trends in music that you've been considering or want to encourage?

I've been thinking in general that one of the interesting next models is to find a way that people with a lot of expertise can not just mentor other people, but also make things with them. It's what I did with my kids, and it's what I try to do with my students at the Media Lab.

With the Toronto Symphony project, I thought, Could you make a situation where quite a lot of people who don't know each other can come together to have this type of experience? Could I invite the entire city of Toronto to take this basic theme of a portrait of a city — a sonic portrait of Toronto — and make a piece with me? I'm trying to set up a situation where it ends up being a piece of music that none of us could have done alone, but I take the responsibility of being the leader, which means if it stinks at the end people can throw tomatoes at me.

Since this is a brand-new concept, I assume you had to change your usual approach to composition. Can you tell me about how this was different?

I've just been realizing these last few days that I'm working on this in a really different way than I've ever worked on a piece. Usually at the beginning of the process of writing a piece I imagine what this thing is that's trying to be born at this moment — what its personality is, what it feels like and quite literally what the experience will be of hearing it and living with it once it's finished. In this case, I thought of the musical story of the piece and the shape of it. I knew I wanted the piece to be like someone coming into the city of Toronto, getting to know it, figuring it out and seeing the parts of it come together. I knew that process, which was very much the composing process, was also going to be the structure of the piece.

I made a picture — a visual score of the piece— so people could see something about the shape to it. I then made a chord progression and set up three categories: Yours, Mine and Ours. [See the image at the end of this interview.]

I realize the piece is still in progress, but what's surprised you so far about the process of making it?

I thought it would be very easy to do all these exchanges and back and forth mainly online. By early July, I realized that it wasn't as exciting as I expected. I had the intuition that I'd have to go up to Toronto a little more. Twenty percent of the interesting stuff has been seeded and developed purely online, but about 80 percent has been from contact with real people sitting face to face trading music, trading ideas and trying things. It's taken a lot of time but it's been so rich.

What are your main goals for the finished Toronto Symphony?

It's important that it ends up being a piece of music people simply want to listen to and that creates an emotional effect and speaks for itself, but I also hope it's something that everybody who participated feels like it's theirs somehow — including me. If it feels like something we all made and that none of us could have made without each other, that would be a great success.

You're the son of a pianist and a computer scientist. How did that influence your work?

I grew up with music and technology in my blood, and it's always been very natural to me to combine the two. Because of that, they're combined in my imagination. Often when I think of a new piece of music I think of the sounds and the feel of it, but I also think of the means needed to make it. I'm almost always thinking of some new technology challenge that goes along with my musical imagination. If the idea is fresh enough, it can't be made exactly with the instruments and tools and mechanisms or social structures that exist now. That's part of what makes it a fresh idea to me.

Even though I've been doing this for a while and even though technology evolves, I always seem to be on the bleeding edge of it. Even if people get used to what I did before, the next project is probably also going to surprise them. It's a pain in the ass because it means there are always going to be some people who oppose what I do, but I'm proud of it because part of my imagination allows me to see what a good next idea is.

You've been called the "grandfather of the Guitar Hero." How did your work with hyperinstruments in the late 1980s lead to that popular video game?

About 15 years ago, I did a project called The Brain Opera. I'd been thinking a lot about the fact that there was music around all the time, either in your iPhone or Walkman headphones or on the elevator or in outdoor public spaces. I was really concerned about the fact that music was always playing as a background but nobody was really listening and actively participating.

I made this Brain Opera as a way to say to people, "If you love music, you'll love it even more if you touch it and make it yourself." We made an orchestra of about 100 instruments designed so anyone from the general public could walk in from the street and play them without any instruction.

That work led directly to Rock Band and Guitar Hero. It turned out to be all the basic software for those games.

Do you still play either of them yourself?

We always had a set of the latest at our house, from the first stages of prototype through when each version hit the stores. It was great to be able to test and play with them, both for evaluation and for fun, and also to have them there for our daughters. We've pretty much grown out of those games at this point and, coincidentally, just sold all of our remaining Rock Band and Guitar Hero paraphernalia on eBay. It all got carted away two days before Christmas.

What about those original concerns you had about passive listening? Have things gotten better since the pre-Guitar Hero days?

I have a 15-year-old daughter, and she's very musical. When a new song will come out by Lady Gaga or Björk or an orchestra or whoever, she and her friends will send it around and start making their own covers of it almost immediately. Then that's what will get sent around. Then people will make variations of that. It's sort of an homage to the original piece, but what kids are listening to most of the time now is not the original song at all. There may be a thousand versions out there. That's how you share the sounds that are in the culture. The idea that people are only listening passively has actually broken down quite a bit. People are in there making things.

What album or piece of music do you find yourself listening most?

Tudor and Elizabethan music from England in the late 1400s until about the end of the 1500s. I listen to that every morning when I exercise or do yoga. To me, it's the music that is both the most calming and balanced but also extremely complex. I can listen to it and feel very stimulated but at the same time it leaves me space to think.

What about when you're looking for inspiration?

When I'm trying to think of something new, I generally like to listen to something I haven't heard before that's quirky or unusual or by a composer or artist I know but maybe haven't heard for a very long time.

There are also certain things I go back to over and over again. When I think about the drama of a piece and how to make something that takes you on a journey but is not superficial, I would always go back to late Beethoven. If I'm thinking about how to have a character come alive in the smallest little musical phrase, I might go back to Mozart. The Beatles I often go back to for how to express fairly complex feelings in the simplest, most direct possible way.

Where do you do your best creative work?

I'm lucky because I have two places in my life. Right now I'm at the MIT Media Lab. The new building opened about a year ago, and it's a building designed for collaboration. I come in here when I really want to share ideas with very open-minded, incredibly nice people. It's a place where I feel like I can share an idea that's half-baked and that I'd normally be embarrassed to talk to anybody about. This is the best place I know for stimulation.

Then I live 20 minutes from here in a town called Waltham just west of Cambridge. I live on an 18th-century farm. We have goats and chickens and I have an 18th-century barn that we spent two years restoring. That's where I do my work. It's quiet, I have fields and meadows and trees outside, and my goats running around. If I do bad work there, it's my fault, because it's the perfect environment.

If you had to venture a guess, what do you think music will sound like 50 years from now?

Over these last 30 or 40 years, sound has been liberated. Music is a combination of learning how to listen and learning how to tell stories through sound. We have every sound in the universe in front of us as a possibility now. I think one thing in the future will be a sound where the orchestra is everything around us, and the language that will begin to emerge is a language that makes harmony out of all that — a new kind of harmony where all the elements fit together in ways we can't quite imagine now.

This model of collaboration between whoever's making the music and whoever's listening to it is also going to grow and grow. In 50 years, and probably well before that, every piece of music will be some kind of collaboration.

If you carry that idea even further and take what we're learning about neuroscience and what happens in our minds when we listen to music, I think it's possible that 50 years from now, we can reverse the idea that a hit tune is the same for everybody. We'll be able to know enough about you as an individual to customize a piece of music, whether from scratch or not. Its most powerful version will be only for you. It has its maximum impact for you. It's personalized music instead of generalized music.

Photo by JC Dhien Photography.

Above: The visual representation Machover created for A Toronto Symphony.

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure