Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

10. An Early Electronic Instrument Movement?

FRANK J. OTERI: Is there room then to still write string quartets and piano sonatas?

TOD MACHOVER: I’m writing a piano trio right now.

FRANK J. OTERI: No electronics?

TOD MACHOVER: Probably no electronics. While working on the piece, I admit that I keep thinking to myself how neat it would be to extend the sound world, or the counterpoint, or the ornamentation through magical technology. You know going back to 20 years ago, the reason I got into this whole field in the first place, is that whenever I come up with some fantastic structure or idea or sound, something really unusual, I know how to shape my technology to make it happen — that ability seems to be part of my creative imagination. But I think I’ll be able to restrain myself, and stay within the limits of the piano trio. There is great power within these limits, too, of course.

FRANK J. OTERI: So the last question then, getting to this notion of how to keep this repertoire alive. You know, you’re writing for instruments now, well, people were writing for the violin in the 18th century, and certainly the period instrument movement has taught us that instruments have changed over the past two centuries, but people are playing slightly different instruments, the same music. How do you write music now for, say, a Yamaha DX7 and 30 years from now there are no Yamaha DX7s around? How do you keep this music alive? Will there be a period instrument movement one day that’ll bring back the Arp 2600?

Flora -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [51 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Towards the Center (1988-89)
for 6 instruments and live computer electronics
New York New Music Ensemble:
Jayn Rosenfeld – flute; Jean Kopperud – clarinet; Linda Quan – violin; Chris Finckel – cello; Elizabeth DiFelice – electronic keyboard; Daniel Druckman – electronic percussion; Conducted by Robert Black
from the CD Tod Machover: Flora
{Bridge BCD 9020; distributed by Koch International}
Order from Amazon.Com

TOD MACHOVER: To be honest, I think there just is no simple answer to that question. Even when writing for MIDI and existing commercial instruments, it’s true that already we’re finding that’s its not even simple to perform some of my music written less than 10 years ago that uses certain Yamaha instruments that aren’t manufactured anymore, that are hard to find. So we’re already coming into a period where some of the commercial electronic instruments are hard to come upon. My own feeling is that anything that was commercially manufactured is likely to be brought back to life through an early electronic music movement, or to become standard or “classic” technology, or to be fairly easily transferred from an old model to a newer one, as is usually possible with computer software.

FRANK J. OTERI: Take the timbres, take the…

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, it’s not that hard to do. I think that’ll be possible. I think what’s harder is when you’re really on the cutting edge, like we are and a bunch of other people are, when you’re making non-commercial instruments and interfaces; that’s really a problem these days. My guess is that for the next while, I don’t know if that’s 10 years, 20 years or 50 years, I think there’s likely to be a certain amount of work — including a certain amount of my creative time — to develop the most idealistic, most interesting, most expressive, most unusual, most artistically appropriate technology for a particular project. We’re just going to stick our necks out and build it just because we believe in it. And I think it’s very possible that some of those things will disappear and that’s just a risk. The fabric ball, or let’s say the Brain Opera instruments might be in this category. I think the Brain Opera instruments were a perfect case of… You know, I invested a good two years of my life into creating those, and we’re designing a version of them now that are – thankfully — going to be permanently installed in Vienna. But they’re not going to be commercially manufactured or available to the general public to own and use at home.

FRANK J. OTERI: But the Brain Opera is not a piece that’s specifically designed to be a repertoire piece. Say as opposed to a piece like Towards the Center, a work of yours from 10 years ago. I can envision that being played by groups without you around all around the world, if they have the equipment.

Angels -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [51 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from The Angel of Death
Christophe Morin – cello;
The Boston Camerata conducted by Joel Cohen
from the CD Joel Cohen & Tod Machover: Angels: Voices from Eternity

{Erato CD 14773-2; distributed by Warner-Elektra-Atlantic}
Order from Amazon.Com

TOD MACHOVER: Right. Towards the Center was composed in 1989, and uses commercial interface and synthesis hardware, a Macintosh computer, and specially written hyperinstrument software. In principle, it is fairly easy to perform and reproduce. However, even with that piece, it isn’t totally simple: the software doesn’t run on current Macintoshes, so has to updated; there are a couple of Yamaha instruments used which now you can only find in the back rooms of the Internet; the company that made the percussion controller for that piece no longer exists, etc. So that’s in the category of things that have to be updated in order to be done; but at least it can be done. My feeling is that the most fruitful way to think of the next period that it’s really very important for artists, like myself a lot of other people in the field, to continue sticking their necks out to think of the most idealistic, creative, far-reaching things that we can do with this technology artistically and in terms of instruments because it’s just the beginning of this field; if we don’t define the future of expressive music technology, the music and computer companies will do it for us. There are so many things we can do that are better than what have been done so far that we just can’t afford to stop this development. The truth is that in continuing this pioneering work, we’re likely to have some instruments and pieces and projects that survive, and some that won’t. Some will be quirky instruments that will end up in museums, rather than in concert halls. It’s very hard to tell. But I really think that it’s important to keep moving forward, because there’s so much more work to be done, and we don’t know where the great ideas are going to come up. It’s just too early to standardize the field. At the same time, one thing that hasn’t happened yet, which I really hope that a lot of us can help to bring about. I think the American Music Center has a role in this, I think that organizations that don’t exist yet have a role… I think that it’s very important for a lot of performing arts organizations to start taking technology seriously and to start working with composers and with research centers, like the Media Lab, like Stanford, or even smaller composers’ groups, to start figuring out a kind of standard for the use of advanced technology in performing situations. There aren’t even people thinking about what should be standard in concert halls. People are building concert halls around the world that have no technology in them at all, or that basically variations on 19th century models. Maybe they have sound enhancement; as we discussed above, it’s a big issue these days that we’re going to amplify concerts. Big deal. That’s nothing. There’s no thought as to instruments, computers, interfaces, interactive setups that should be in concert halls of the future, to say nothing of ways that technology should be integrated into opera, music-theatre and other mixed forms. There’s no thought about new kinds of concert halls. There’s really nothing these days between proscenium stages and black boxes. Black boxes are being still built all over. Black boxes are basically abdicating responsibility. People say, “Okay, we’re going to give you a hall to try experiments in that’s going to be a rectangle that has nothing in it. It has no seats; it has no speakers. And you can do anything you want.” But that doesn’t work either, and these black boxes never get used every time you want to do something you basically have to build an entire theater inside this neutral space. So I think there’s an important process that has to happen, starting as soon as possible, with performing organizations and research organizations and technology manufacturers and some people in the entertainment industry to start working together to figure out interactive/electronic/acoustic combination performance standards for the next generation. And this has to include brainstorming about both artistic visions and, unfortunately, new ways of funding and supporting this work. It’s going to take a new kind of partnership that just doesn’t exist yet. And if we don’t have that, I think the acoustic performing organizations and the entertainment world and the technology industries and what composers really want to do are going to continue diverging in four different directions. And I think the people who are going to suffer the traditional performing arts organizations; they will wake up 20 years from now and realize that a hybrid, media arts culture has developed and has been co-opted by the entertainment industry. Well, everybody’s going to suffer if we can’t organize a fundamentally new kind of coalition. Because I think that composers will not be willing to invest enough time and effort in technology and interaction and live performance if they feel that their work has no chance of entering any repertoire; The orchestras and chamber music societies and operas, for that matter, are going to find that it continues to be too expensive to do works involving really interesting technology because there’s no standard, and equipment is too expensive to assemble and too difficult to manipulate. And the entertainment industry will be impoverished, as today’s Stockhausens and Schoenbergs fail to have the fundamental confrontations with the best popular artists that led to the great pop music of the 60’s or great movie music of the 30’s. So this is one of the things that I intend to spend a lot of my time doing in the next three to five years, figuring out how to get these different groups of people to talk to each other and realize that we have to work together to make this kind of standardization, dialogue, and creative confrontation happen. Otherwise, this field won’t really develop in the right way.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow, we could talk for 10 hours I think, and not even begin to scratch the surface.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, thank you. I hope it wasn’t too random.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.