Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

4. Interactive Music

TOD MACHOVER: I think this brings up an interesting question, which is clearly one of the things that technology starts to help us redefine in the relationship between all the different functions for music making and music producing. You know, performers versus composers versus listeners versus conductors. It may turn out that 100 years down the line everything’s been shuffled and that these categories will reemerge very much like they are now. But my guess is that these categories will blur more and more. One of the things I see as a possibility with these instruments is — not just instruments but generally the kind of technology environments that we are starting to build for music now — is that we could take some of the focus off of physical virtuosity and the kind of athleticism of learning to play an instrument, and put as much focus as we could on the mental and emotional activities of music, whether it’s being a better listener or imagining things and making them happen or interpreting things to your liking. Traditional instruments are hard to play. It takes a long time to physical skills which aren’t necessarily the essential qualities of making music. It takes years just to get good tone quality on a violin or to play in tune. If we could find a way to allow people to spend the same amount of concentration and effort on listening and thinking and evaluating the difference between things and thinking about how to communicate musical ideas to somebody else, how to make music with somebody else, it would be a great advantage. Not only would the general level of musical creativity go up, but you’d have a much more aware, educated, sensitive, listening, and participatory public.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting, looking back at the history of mankind, you have the so-called primitive societies or ancient societies, where everybody had their own song. Everybody made their own song, and they sang their own song, and it was part of their identity to have their own songs. There are still Native American tribes where everybody has their own song, groups in the South Pacific who have their own songs. And then we slowly get an industrialized culture in the Far East or in Europe from Medieval times to say the 19th century, where people maybe didn’t have their own songs, but they had instruments in their homes. In society families in Japan, there’d always be somebody with a koto in their home, and here in the West, you’d have a piano in every household, and people would play chamber music in the 19th century. In fact, the very words “chamber music” tells you that it was made in people’s homes. And then something happened.

TOD MACHOVER: And the other thing, people would go to church or synagogue or whatever every week, and they’d sing together.

FRANK J. OTERI: And then you get into this thing when electronics first happened. It was a blessing and a curse at the same time. Finally, you had reproducible sound, first with recordings and people bought recordings and played those recordings. Then you had radio, and people didn’t even choose their own recordings; they listened to what was chosen for them. And then television, and then music sort of got diminished further and further. For a while, a lot of people had guitars in their homes. Every college dorm room had a guitar in it. But nowadays there are many homes that have no instruments in them at all. At the end of this century, you’re in a way, with the highest level of technology, bringing music back to the very root, bringing it back to everybody.

Spectres -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [46 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Nature’s Breath (1984)
The Prism Orchestra conducted by Robert Black
from the CD Tod Machover: Spectres
{Bridge BCD 9002; distributed by Koch International}
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TOD MACHOVER: Everything you say is right. There’s even the further paradox right now, which is that although there is less and less direct, informal music making by the general public, at the same time you have music everywhere, in kind of a grotesque way. I was in Houston recently, and downtown they pipe music up through the sidewalk. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s really loud in the restaurants, too. So people seem to want music playing all the time, in the car, while we dine, in elevators, at work, while we read or study. This music studio is one of the few spaces I’ve been in recently where there wasn’t music in the background. So music’s around all the time, but fewer and fewer people actually participate in it themselves. It’s not a mystery to say there’s some disconnect there, and anything we can do to make those ends meet is I think a really good thing. Even if we got rid of the technology and just encouraged people to sing, that would be great. But I think one of the wonderful things about technology is that it should allow this reconnection with active music participation. Part of the problem is that music itself has this incredible paradox that both seduces people and shuns them. It’s one of the most direct, visceral experiences we can have, and connects with our deepest emotional desires. It hits us really deeply and directly. But music also has involves an incredible degree of specialization and expertise which scares many people away. Instruments are hard to play; music theory is hard to learn and understand; music history and culture is vast and overwhelming. How many times do you hear people say, “Oh, gee, I’m tone deaf,” or, “I don’t really know about music,” or, “I can’t sing,” or, “I don’t know anything about music theory”? I hear that all the time from intelligent, educated people who would never hesitate to look at a photo or painting, or to read a story or poem, let alone to watch TV or go to the movies. Nor would they hesitate to pronounce judgment on any of these things.

FRANK J. OTERI: Sometimes people won’t even listen to music. They’ll say, “Gee, I can’t really appreciate a piece of classical music. I never really studied music.” I hear that a lot.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, this just isn’t true. Anybody can respond to music and hear music, and I think that given the right set of tools — something you can get your hands on and try and manipulate and see the differences between one thing and another and maybe try to shape something yourself or try to combine things, the kind of basic level of playing with sound that people don’t usually have an opportunity to do — with these tools we can break down these barriers. With the possibilities of new technology, we have a chance to offer that kind of experience to people. And I believe that — subversively, as composers, I we have an amazing opportunity of making experiences that don’t just teach people about music but teach people about our music. It’s funny, because five to ten years ago, when the entertainment industry started to catch on to interactive media, especially through video games, there was an initial euphoria that this could be converted into enriching artistic experiences, riding the wave of the financial boom this was creating. But even today, there are not that many CD-ROMs or Web sites coming out with pieces of music that a listener can explore or recombine or learn about; I think that there’s an enormous potential there that hasn’t really been tapped. Not just for training better listeners, but for having people actually understand how our music is put together. Instead of liner notes, people could be designing compositions where part of listening would actually be a way of exploring the melodies and themes and structures of your particular piece. Fundamentally, this is one of the experiments I tried to make with the Brain Opera, where the public experimented with our hyperinstruments — but also with the work’s fundamental musical materials — before hearing a concert where all of these elements were combined and unified.

FRANK J. OTERI: It makes it much more hands-on.

TOD MACHOVER: It’s wonderful… The technology is starting to be there. It’s a really challenging thing for each of us to think of putting our music in a form where people approach it by playing with it and then listening to bits of it, all of it. I think it’s a real potential for all of us to draw listeners into what we’re doing.

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