Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

3. John Cage and Structure

FRANK J. OTERI: So what about the Cage influence in a public-oriented interactive project like the Brain Opera or Meteorite?

TOD MACHOVER: Yes, I think that Cage has been the biggest inspiration for that line of work for me. And I also think there is a significant difference from Cage’s philosophy in what I’ve tried to do… I think Cage was so fantastic because he was one of those few people who was incredibly extreme in what he proposed, as we all know. Well, it’s not so simple. What he said he proposed was a situation where he was trying to strip away rules so that if, as he always said, people listened carefully enough or in the right way to the world around them, you wouldn’t need composers and you wouldn’t need pieces; you wouldn’t need a concert situation at all. At the same time, although Cage didn’t write software that constrained instruments, he did obviously choose very carefully the musical materials that were used or the particular theme of the work or the particular way that audiences were juxtaposed with the performers; I mean, it wasn’t random. So there’s a kind of tension between the complete freedom that Cage advocated, and the necessity to shape situations so that the most fruitful result is likely to occur. And I believe that John knew this and practiced it, although he didn’t often say it.

FRANK J. OTERI: You can hear a Cage sound.

TOD MACHOVER: Absolutely.

FRANK J. OTERI: You can identify the sound. There’s a personality there, despite the random ideas behind it. They’re very well worked out a lot of the time.

Flora -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [27 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Famine (1985-86)
For 4 amplified voices and computer-generated tape
Electric Phoenix:
Judith Rees – soprano; Mary King – mezzo-soprano; Daryl Runswick – tenor; Terry Edwards – bass; John Whiting – sound engineer
from the CD Tod Machover: Flora
{Bridge BCD 9020; distributed by Koch International}
Order from

TOD MACHOVER: For me, the goal in work that invites the public in to be co-participants, ideally would be something where the context and maybe the general feel of the work, the world it inhabits, is kind of set up and defined, and within that there truly is room for something unexpected to happen and for people to feel like they’ve been allowed to really contribute, not to be manipulated. It’s very hard to do this right. The two extremes are either to give something the equivalent of a crayon and a blank piece of paper or a piano keyboard and say “Come to my party and make whatever you want to,” and of course that’s too daunting… that’s not enough structure, not enough constraint. The other extreme is to say, “I’m giving you an instrument. You can push the start button, and then…” You can constrain it too much, so that people don’t have room to do anything interesting. To create precisely the situation where somebody can do something really personal and special and contribute and feel like something wonderful has happened, that’s I think a major goal for a certain kind of work that should be done now, and it’s very hard to do.

FRANK J. OTERI: This whole notion of structure in a way is liberating. I remember over 10 years ago, I was an English teacher in the New York City high school system, and I would tell my students to write a poem or an essay or something, and a lot of them couldn’t come up with anything. And then I taught them about sonnets and said, “Write a sonnet or write a haiku,” and my chairman said, “You’re not going to get these kids to write sonnets. They can’t write sonnets; this is an incredibly difficult form.” But it was easier for them to write sonnets than it was for them just to write on a topic, to write anything. Because they had 14 lines; there was a goal; there’s a rhyme scheme; there were do’s and don’ts. There was a skeleton that they were able to plant ideas into rather than having a completely empty piece of paper.

TOD MACHOVER: Right. I think the nice thing is that there are a lot of ways to organize creative situations. One of best things about working at a place like this, like the Media Lab, is it’s a place designed to get people together to think of new ideas. One of the things that has been fun is that, depending on the kind of problem that we’re trying to solve or the nature of the project, the process for getting there can be completely different. Like today. You happen to be here on a day when we’ve made a breakthrough. We’re trying to come up with something that’s quite different from anything we’ve ever done, to build a kind of wild Lego kit of the future that would let children experiment with making pieces of music, so we’re calling it a music construction kit. Something where, again, there’s enough structure to guide children to do really creative things. What does it mean to have a physical construction piece that would be the right part of composition or sound? You know, you don’t want it to be a couple of notes or a melody; that’s too static, rigid, and simplistic. You want it to be an element that can be redefined all the time. You want something about the shape of this “Big Thing” as you build it to suggest something about the way it sounds. I give this as an example because we’ve set up a sort of brainstorming and design group with a general shared vision and goal, but little specific idea about what the final design is going to be. It’s been an incredibly arduous process… It’s taken us probably six months to get this far, and I’ve tried to be very careful about not wanting to lock in on an instrument design too soon. We’ve tried to give ourselves the liberty of really being bold about coming up with something that’s very different. And every time it doesn’t feel right, instead of saying, “Okay, let’s lock the design in now and start building it,” we say, “Let’s give it another week or two.” And I think that’s let us come up with a design which is really quite radical and nothing that we could have imagined six months ago. And I think that you could set up a situation like that for children or for audiences or in any kind of situation where if the imagination process is defined well enough, there is a way to have an open structure for creativity with a goal at the end where something very special will in fact emerge. I mean, you design the tools, the instruments and the environment where this kind of thing can happen. One of the next projects that we’re working on now is something that I’m calling “Toy Symphony.” We’re making Music Toys for kids age 2 to 10, and they’re being designed so that workshops in a variety of different cities can take place with children and these toys and symphony orchestras. We’re trying to set it up in such a way where kids will be able to work with professional musicians and these music toys over a period of months, so that the form of the collaborations will very open — different unlike something like the Brain Opera, where we had people coming in off the street with only 45 minutes or with these instruments to make something. In a situation like that, the instruments have to be very clearly defined and very constrained. You know, you can’t have somebody walk in, learn an instrument and do something incredibly interesting in 45 minutes without a fairly clear context. With these music toys, I’m thinking of it more as an open creativity workshop where something very surprising might could out of it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, the flip side of this, which I think is equally interesting, is you say that in a few minutes you can’t get onto a new instrument and expect to create something wonderful.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, you can, but it has to be very carefully defined.

FRANK J. OTERI: By the same notion, what I find so interesting about creating new instruments and what you’ve been doing is that with the instruments that we’re all used to — the violin or the cello or the flute or the clarinet or the piano — there’s so much baggage already. There’s so much repertoire; there are so many expectations. And a lot of classically trained musicians won’t veer from the course. There are a lot of musicians who are afraid to improvise, who are afraid to do anything that goes outside those parameters. And here you have a new instrument; you’re forced to do something new with it. There’s no tradition. There’s no Beethoven or Brahms string quartet in the back of your mind saying, “Oh, well, gee we have to live up to this.”


FRANK J. OTERI: And there are no great soloists. You know, nowadays, a violinist plays the Brahms Violin Concerto, and there are like 50 recordings in the past to listen to and say, “I want to play this second movement the way Henryk Szeryng played it.” Or, “I want to play the finale the way Nathan Milstein played it.” You know, there’s no context. You have to invent, which makes it more exciting.

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.