As a composer and musicologist, I have now been associated for thirty years with the Opera of the Future research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. I have inherited my passion for technology and music from my parents. My mother was an artist and piano teacher, my father a computer scientist and one of the pioneers in computer graphics.
As an 18-year-old, I already wanted to make music using software, breaking the barriers between so-called popular and serious music. After graduating I was invited in 1978 as composer-in-residence at Pierre Boulez’ new Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM ) in Paris. They invited me for one year, but I ended up staying for seven years. In 1985, I co-founded the MIT Media Lab, with a broad mission: to give citizens a better quality of life through art but also through education. Music is so much more than entertainment. It really connects people. It also positively affects your health and life and it can restore bits of memory for Alzheimer’s patients. And for me, opera is the most expressive music form, because it affects all the senses.
As a designer of new music technology, I try to democratize music, because democracy lifts people up and breaks barriers. Music should be accessible to everyone, so when you create a piece of art, you can reach everyone. Every individual is valuable and talented, whether or not his name is Einstein or Beethoven. And technology is the common language of our era, in which above all visual experience plays a dominant role. Years ago already, we developed “Hyperinstruments” at MIT. Those instruments were electronically enhanced to increase their efficiency. One of our inventions was the hyper piano, which can read the placement of your hands. That is how I see technology: as the ultimate tool to unite as many people as possible.
We need to customize technology in a way that connects people instead of isolating them or turning them against each other. I also connect people with my city symphonies: Philadelphia Voices recently went in premiere. It is a musical portrait of the city. You listen to its sounds, such as the traffic noises or the hum of people talking in restaurants. I wanted to make a piece of music in which every resident who loves music had a voice. Via an app people could record sounds or stories and forward the audio. The opera came to life through a mix of technology, music, social media and the street experience.
The importance of total experiences
Social media promised to connect people, but in practice often only work in one direction. When Lady Gaga addresses her fans via social media, they cannot return a personal message. That is why I believe more than ever in physical experiences. In our digital times, such experiences are becoming more and more important in the entire entertainment industry. Recently a museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia. It offers one big theatrical and physical experience, ending in an augmented reality experience. You can hear and smell all sorts of things in the real tent president George Washington used during the seven years he led his troops on the battlefield.
We are also experimenting with AR in live orchestra performances. I prefer augmented to virtual reality. VR isolates you completely from the real world, AR connects you with it. In that way it can also connect people with each other.
As a leading composer-inventor, Tod Machover is associated with MIT Media Lab. His core business is connecting music (especially opera) with technology.