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A Composer At The Edge Of Sound

Tod Machover's goal is to put music into the hands of people who want to play it — or at least imagine it.

Video game fans may have spent some time with something Machover and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped to develop — Guitar Hero.

In the early 1980s, Machover was director of musical research at IRCAM, a music research institute. Since 1985, the American musician and composer has been at the forefront of music and technology as a professor at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. Machover says a lot has changed since his days at IRCAM: Now, anyone can access cutting-edge technology.

"The idea that you could make a new kind of instrument that would use the gestures you were most natural and familiar with, and the fact that that would lead to a set of instruments that would let anyone have fun with music makes a lot of sense," he says.

Instruments With Built-In Technology

Machover first began working on what he calls "hyperinstruments" at MIT in 1986. The most famous is probably the hypercello he created for Yo-Yo Ma.

"The basic idea of a hyperinstrument is where the technology is built right into the instrument so that the instrument knows how it's being played — literally what the expression is, what the meaning is, what the direction of the music is," Machover says. "If a performer pushed to a downbeat or relaxed on a phrase or brought out a particular F-sharp, those things would be recognized and valued by the instrument."

For Yo-Yo Ma's hypercello, Machover placed sensors on the instrument, the performer's wrist and his bow and fed the electronic impulses generated by those sensors into a computer. It took the signals and responded to the cellist's playing — sometimes transforming the sound, and sometimes creating new sounds.

Machover is a cellist himself. He started playing as a child, and from the beginning he was interested in modern classical music — and rock. He studied at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and at Columbia and the Juilliard School of Music in New York — where his mentors included the late Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter, who is still composing and will celebrate his 100th birthday next month.

Machover admits his approach to music isn't for everyone. He hopes his hyperinstruments will be adopted by more soloists. But he says at least one school has seized on the idea.

"The Royal Academy of Music in London got interested in hyperinstruments and particularly in stringed hyperinstruments," Machover says. "So we've worked with them for the past few years to bring a set of these instruments into the center of their curriculum. And that's a wonderful way for these kinds of instruments to get into [the hands of] soloists, chamber musicians and orchestras."

Music, Mind And Health

"Music, Mind and Health" is the name of one of Machover's latest projects. He and his team at the MIT Media Lab were contacted by the Massachusetts Cultural Council to see if they were interested in working at a hospital in Tewksbury, north of Boston.

"Our initial work was with people who were long-term residents at this hospital and, generally, people with no experience in music," Machover says.

One person Machover's team worked with was Dan Ellsey, a man in his early 30s with severe cerebral palsy. Bound to a wheelchair, Ellsey has very limited movement, and communicates with a talking box that he controls through an infrared controller worn in a headband.

"One of my students made an interface so Dan [Ellsey] could use his head movements and the infrared controller on his head to actually draw the lines and colors that we use for our Hyperscore software. He wrote a piece that was transcribed for symphony orchestra and is absolutely dynamite."

Machover's student used the same controller on the young man's head to create a hyperinstrument that understands the movements he can make and compensates for movements that are difficult for him.

"He changes the sound of the piece; he changes the emphasis; he changes the texture; he changes the accents; he changes the color of the piece," Machover says. "When he's playing the piece, he's a different person."

The Future Of Music

Machover does all of this work — his research, teaching and outreach — while still pursuing an active career as a composer. His work has been commissioned or performed by Pierre Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporain, the London Sinfonietta, Speculum Musicae, the San Francisco Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Kronos Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma and others. He has written or edited four books; seen two operas premiered; and composed more than 25 orchestral, chamber and electronic works. Two new operas will premiere in the next few months.

So, what about Guitar Hero? Machover sees in it the future of music.

"Imagine if [Guitar Hero] were truly expressive, truly personal, truly creative. The wonderful thing about Guitar Hero is that it opens up the door for everybody to be not just a passive listener but a real active participant in music," Machover says. "I think that is the future of music: music that is a collaboration between what we traditionally think of as composers and performers and the audience."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

American musician and composer Tod Machover was the first director of musical research at IRCAM back in the early '80s. Since 1985, he's been at the cutting edge of music and technology as a professor at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If there are teenage videogame fans in your life, chances are, they're spending time with something Machover and his team helped to develop.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Machover is one of the inventors behind the game Guitar Hero, and he's had a long-time interest in toys and music education. Tod Machover joins us from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Thanks for taking the time.

Professor TOD MACHOVER (Media Lab, MIT): Pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: You know, looking back at those days long ago in the computer labs of IRCAM, did you ever dream it would lead to something like Guitar Hero?

Prof. MACHOVER: That's a good question. When IRCAM started, there weren't even any computers fast enough to make music live. And I remember a German composer named York Hueller(ph) was waiting and waiting and waiting for one minute of music to be calculated on these roomfuls of machines, and finally, he said, in the time that I wait for my one sound to come out, Wolfgang Reim(ph) has written another opera. So things have come a long way.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You've developed hyperinstruments. Describe what they are.

Prof. MACHOVER: Well, the basic idea of a hyperinstrument is where the technology is built right into the instrument so that the instrument knows how it's being played literally, what the expression is, what the meaning is, what the direction of the music is. If a performer pushed to a downbeat or relaxed on a phrase or brought out a particular F sharp, those things would be recognized and valued by the instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Do you think they really have staying power? I mean, can you imagine in the classical music world orchestras really embracing this technology?

Prof. MACHOVER: I think that orchestras may not be the first place where this happens. I think soloists and small ensembles are places where this will happen. One of the breakthroughs that we had in the last few years is that the Royal Academy of Music in London, they got interested in hyperinstruments and particularly in string hyperinstruments. So we've worked with them for the last few years to bring a set of these instruments into the center of their curriculum. And that's a wonderful way for these kind of instruments to get into soloists, chamber musicians, and orchestras hopefully pretty soon.

HANSEN: Let's talk about the new initiative that you and your team at MIT Media Lab have been doing, Music, Mind and Health. You talk about music being one of the best ways to show who we are.

Prof. MACHOVER: Yeah. So we were contacted by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. They wanted to know if we were interested in working at a local hospital in Tewksbury, Massachusetts north of Boston. Our initial work was with all people who were long-term residents at this hospital and, generally, people who had no experience with music.

And when I went to this hospital, I didn't know what to expect. I gave a presentation on some of our work and especially on some software called Hyperscore, which uses lines and color to let anybody compose. And in this room of four or 500 people, all patients at the hospital, about two thirds of the hands shot up.

And what was incredible is that, here was a room full of people who were bursting with things they had always wanted to do and had never had a way. And the best thing was that everybody had something original to say. The pieces that emerged were absolutely remarkable.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. MACHOVER: One person in particular is a young man in his early 30s named Dan Ellsey. And Dan has severe celebral palsy since birth. So he is in a wheelchair, has very restricted movement, talks through a talking box that he controls using an infrared controller that he wears in a headband.

My student, Adam Boulanger, made an interface so he could use his head movements and an infrared controller on his head to actually draw the lines and colors that we use for our Hyperscore software. He wrote a particular piece which he polished and was transcribed for symphony orchestra, and it's absolutely a dynamite piece.

Then the second stage, we asked him if he wanted to have a system where he could perform his own piece. So again, my student Adam used the same infrared controller on Dan's head. A hyperinstrument for Dan values the special movements that he can make and compensates for movements that are difficult for him to make. And he changes the sound of the piece. He changes the emphasis. He changes the texture. He changes the accents. He changes the color of the piece. When he's playing his piece, he's a different person.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Very briefly, what's your vision for the musical future?

Prof. MACHOVER: Well, I think, what if you took something like Guitar Hero and imagine what that would be like if it were truly expressive, truly personal, truly creative, and a truly rich experience. The wonderful thing about Guitar Hero is that it opens up the door for everybody to be not just a passive listener, but a real active participant in music. I think that's the future of music, music that is a collaboration between what we traditionally think of as composers and performers and the audience.

HANSEN: Composer, professor, inventor Tod Machover, thanks so much.

Prof. MACHOVER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: To hear more about Tod Machover and some of his music, visit nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

NOAH ADAMS: (Singing) All alone at the end of the evening.

HANSEN: NPR's Noah Adams admits he's no singer. But 25 years ago, he bravely sang this song in a New York recording studio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: (Singing) I was thinking...

HANSEN: He played the tape for NPR's Susan Stamberg, who couldn't contain her giggles. Back then, studio tools such as pitch correction and auto-tune didn't exist. A few weeks ago, I ginned up my own courage to sing in a professional studio.

(Soundbite of song 'Put Me on the Highway')

HANSEN: (Singing) So hard to train. I can't seem to settle down.

Obviously, I'm no singer either, but I wondered if auto-tune could help me. You be the judge when our music and technology series continues next week.

(Singing) And turning out and burning out.

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm really sorry. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Singing) So put me on a highway. Show me a sign. Take it to the limit one more time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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