Putting the fun back in playing: Toy Symphony comes to U.S.

Putting the fun back in playing: Toy Symphony comes to U.S.

Tod Machover tries out a music shaper
Photo by Webb Chappell

“Experience first, then intellectualize.”

This was the mantra of German composer and educator Carl Orff. He believed that music for children should never be alone, “but connected with movement, dance, and speech—not to be listened to, meaningful only in active participation.” Certainly children are usually kinesthetic learners who absorb more when they are touching and doing rather than reading or listening, and Orff envisioned a classroom in which children were encouraged to exploit the active components of music well before they were forced to sit down and learn the rules. With Orff’s prescription, music rooms all over the world became equipped with clunky, wooden xylophones, tinny glockenspiels, and a toy chest of percussion instruments.

Toy Symphony Events

US Premiere in Boston (4/26/03)
Concerts in New York City (5/17 & 5/18/03)
Toys featured at Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial in New York City (4/22/03 – 1/24/04)

But times have changed and children today are coming of age in a highly complex and technological climate. Kids and adults alike are impressed with the newest gadgets and approach them with enthusiasm and sophistication. Tod Machover, the director of the M.I.T. Media Lab and the son of a computer graphics designer and a music teacher, noticed early on that there was a disconnect in early music education. And while education wasn’t a main focus for him a decade ago, the birth of his own two children forced him to revisit pedagogical issues. “I was just really disappointed with what was available for a three year-old, a four year-old, a five year-old,” Machover said of the opportunities in Boston. “Kids are natural musicians, but we put huge barriers in front of people to learn music.”

His disappointing search for music programs coincided with the production of his Brain Opera, an interactive, computer-mediated musical work that allowed anybody to contribute music or sounds that would then be inserted into the libretto during the performance. “Probably the biggest surprise was that everywhere we went—New York, Tokyo, South America—the people who understood the Brain Opera quickest and who did the most interesting things with it and seemed the most liberated by it were the youngest people and the oldest people,” Machover noted. So, inspired by his own experiences and taking Orff’s philosophies to the next level, the Toy Symphony concept was born. He and his team at M.I.T. designed the 3-year long music and performance project to be hi-tech, hands-on approach to how children learn to listen to, perform, and compose music.

Top: Beatbug/Bottom: Music Shaper
Photo courtesy M.I.T. Media Lab

The first step in the process was the creation of the “toys,” the tools at the heart of the project. Under Machover’s leadership, the M.I.T. Media Lab, a team of talented researchers and inventors, developed instruments and software with easy-to-use interfaces that allow children to create and play complicated music even if they have little or no musical background. Beatbugs, as the name suggests, are adorable bug-shaped percussive instruments that allow players to create, manipulate, and share rhythmic patterns. Multiple beatbugs can be linked together allowing for the collective creation of complex rhythmic layers. A second instrument, called a music shaper, counterbalances the structural function of the beatbugs by offering a means to control expression. While the colorful embroidery on that marks these squishy, round instruments certainly makes them pretty, its real function is to act as sensory controls. The conductive thread used to create the designs allows sensory information—such as how hard it is being squeezed, twisted, or pulled—to be interpreted into an expressive musical gesture. “It’s actually not that easy to find materials that don’t break or deform when you twist them, but also that measure what you’re doing when you twist them,” admitted Machover. “So we did a lot of experiments with everything from silly putty that you could send signals through to foam and rubber and all kinds of materials and finally a couple of my students developed a technique where they took thread, any thread that has metallic substance in it, and the thread itself picks up the electricity in your fingers and it can measure how hard you’re squeezing it.” The shapers allow children to manipulate timbre, shape, and intensity, in a way allowing them to viscerally conduct music.

A screenshot from Hyperscore
Photo courtesy M.I.T. Media Lab

While the beatbugs and shapers certainly offer a tactile entry into music creation, it is the Hyperscore program which that crowns Toy Symphony. This computer software, which can be downloaded for free from the Toy Symphony website, allows users to construct musical pieces from free hand drawings and provides a number of different building blocks that are simple to place and manipulate. By engaging both auditory and visual perception, children become capable of created complex music without any advanced theoretical knowledge. “It lets children not worry about the technical rules of music and immediately start thinking about things like: What makes a good bit of musical material? What are the different ways that I can put things together? What makes musical continuity? What makes tension? What keeps people’s interest? What’s form?”

Armed with these three “toys,” as well as a refined “hyperviolin” (one of Machover’s signature inventions), the Toy Symphony education team took to the road. The first leg of the Toy Symphony tour took it to Glasgow, Berlin, and Dublin, and its U.S. premiere will bring it back to M.I.T. on Saturday, April 26. In each city, the Toy Symphony pedagogical activities begin with an Open House that allows parents and children (and anyone else) to explore the “toys” and get a sense of how they work. This is followed by general workshops that take place all over the city, in museums, schools, and after-school programs. During these workshops, children are given training in musical concepts via the use of the three “toys.” From the initial workshops, about 40 children are selected to perform during the Toy Symphony performance.

In Boston, Machover’s hometown and the birthplace of Toy Symphony, local response has been overwhelming. “We’ve got kids coming out of our ears!” he laughs. Here, the program will culminate in a concert with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose and hyperviolin soloist, 20-year old Irish violinist Cora Venus Lunny. Machover’s electro-orchestral work Sparkler, a work that effectively demonstrates how orchestras and technology can work together, opens the program, but the real meat of the concert involves the children who have been rehearsing in intensive workshops performing music for the new toys. Gili Weinberg‘s Nerve is a rhythmically frenetic work for 6 kids and 2 professionals playing a networked set of beat bugs; Jean-Pascal Beintus‘s Nature Suite features shapers with acoustic accompaniment; a selection of Hyperscore pieces written by workshop participants will be performed by the orchestra; and the finale, Machover’s Toy Symphony, will bring all of the elements together. In addition to the standard Toy Symphony program, the world premiere of a collaborative piece between 12-year old Boston composer Natasha Sinha, a four-time ASCAP Morton Gould Award winner, and M.I.T. graduate student Hugo Solis will be presented. Sinha, who had recently completed her first orchestral work called Ramayana, was encouraged to work with Solis on a more visually guided compositional process that related to the other concepts of Toy Symphony. “There was a totally different composing method for me,” Sinha said. “I learned a lot.”

Basically, she and Solis were asked to create a piece of music for orchestra and the toys, and for Sinha, who has written solely for acoustical instruments in the past, getting used to electronic sounds was ear-opening. “With the shapers, you could control the pitch, but there was also a non-pitch side of it,” she explained. “So it was a little bit hard, at least for me, because you had to step outside of the pitch world and understand what it was like to listen to non-pitched sounds.”

The two composers began the process by listening to electronic music and manipulating all kinds of different parameters. The first compositional step involved the creation of huge graphs that controlled pitch, intensity, duration, timbre, etc, which were then turned into a visual score. Sinha said it was the first time she had worked with “proportional notation” and explained that “depending on how long the line was, that would indicate how long you were supposed to hold the note. And then we had other staves that would tell you how long or how soft, when to use a mute, when not to use a mute, how violently to play…”

“She and Hugo really started from scratch,” Machover added. “One of the fun things about anything like Toy Symphony is it should be a way for any of us to dive in and do something really different than we’ve done before.”

But in both ways of composing, Sinha points out that “you have to be very creative in both and you have to come up with the idea for the structure.”

After its US premiere in Boston, Toy Symphony will arrive in New York in May. Along with the workshops and performances, the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum will has the instruments on display as part of their Design Triennial. The final leg of the project will take place in Japan in October.

Looking farther into the future, Machover hopes that the concepts that drove Toy Symphony will endure well after the end of formal events. “I think, as in any project like this, the big question now is what’s the easiest way to make these materials available so people can try them out for the least amount of money.” Fisher Price may be able to help here and they have shown an interest in making a version of Hyperscore with a tutorial available for mass consumption and there is a possibility of the other toys showing up at your local Toys R Us as well.

“There’s such a great potential for all aspects of this,” Machover concludes. “For children thinking that music is something they can do themselves, for children thinking about composing, for children thinking about new music and not just commercial music or about classical music. I mean, it’s fantastic for children to think about music as something that’s living…I would love for children to grow up with more innovative than conservative ears than we have.”

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