The Sound of Science

JAN 11, 2011

An interview with Tod Machover, creator of Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera.

Heather Berlowitz: How did you first begin to merge music with science and technology?

Tod Machover: I grew up playing classical music. I got interested in rock music when I was a teenager, so I used to put headphones on my cello and I had a rock band. In the late ’70s I got this sense that computers, if you used them the right way, could directly tie into your imagination – anything you could dream of, you could make real. I got known at the time for being one of the few young, serious composers who had a finger on technology. The French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez – then at the New York Philharmonic – knew I was at Juilliard and he asked if I’d like to come for a year residency at this new place called IRCAM (Institute for research and coordination of acoustics and music) which is part of the Pompidou Center in Paris. I went for a year and ended up staying for seven as its first Director of Musical Research. When I got there, there was a crazy Italian nuclear physicist who had just finished the design for the first computer that was built especially for music. It was amazing. I made the first piece with live computer that anyone ever did. Before the MIT Media Lab opened, they called and said, “We’re doing this crazy thing in Boston, do you want to come back?” I’ve been at the Media Lab since it started, for 25 years.

How long has this project been in the works?

It took about ten years. I started thinking, maybe this is a time to think about how to use technology to make the physical infrastructure of the stage help tell the story, not projections, not screens, not anything that feels electronic. How can we do that in a way that makes you feel closer to a human being, rather than distance you? It developed into this story about a guy who doesn’t so much want to live forever, but he is kind of tired of the world and has this idea of a different form of existence. So, he figures out a way to basically download himself into his environment. The opera starts and the stage, little by little, just as I imagined, becomes him. Everybody who’s left watches and they have to figure out, “Where is he? How do I relate to him? Is this good for me? Is it a great deal that he has? Do I want to go there too?” That’s where the drama is.

The character Miranda expresses her yearning for a “father of flesh and blood.” In what way does the opera address human fears about living in an era where we interact increasingly with machines and less with human beings?

Personally, if I had to pick one character to identify with, it would be Miranda. She’s just an ordinary person trying to be connected with the people she loves, but in fact her dad’s gone, he died. Part of the opera is just about how you deal with losing a person who’s very close to you. That’s one of the most human experiences. Yes, he’s in the machine, but it takes the whole opera for her to figure out what that means to her.

How do you think that audiences will receive the production and your music?

One of my goals has always been to make things that are rich and complex but will also grab you right away. I’ve been doing crazy projects for a while now and the bigger the project, the more it’s true that the lasting impact is often different from what I expect. I did the Brain Opera – part of my intention was to make an opera where the audience could participate, collaborate, come to Lincoln Center and try these instruments and then see a performance where half of it I composed ahead of time and half of it came from what the audience had just created. I expected it to be a way of shaking up the concert world, but the most lasting thing that came out of it was Guitar Hero. You just never know. The cool thing is that those are the kinds of things that are out of your control – what lasts, what kernel of an idea is powerful enough to spur something else. That’s why I keep doing them…and of course for the music itself, which I hope will lodge in everyone’s minds, with strange melodies, quirky rhythms and enveloping sonorities resonating long after they leave the theater!

Heather Berlowitz is a writer and yoga instructor. She lives in Cambridge, MA.


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