Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

1. From Sgt. Pepper to IRCAM

FRANK J. OTERI: So it’s been a very, very interesting day up here, exploring the MIT Media Lab and seeing all the fascinating things going on, all the different gadgets. I feel like I’m already in the 21st century, even thought it’s still half a year away. Actually, by the time this goes up in October, it will only be a couple of months away.

TOD MACHOVER: True.

FRANK J. OTERI: Where to begin this thing? You’re in a sort of unique position, I think, to talk to us about the future of music and this whole question of technology in music and bridging the gap between the academic world and the vernacular world. You write music that’s largely very accessible, that aims to be accessible, yet at the same time, you’re working in an academic field, really at the cutting edge of a lot of technologies and a lot of thoughts about music. Where else to begin?

TOD MACHOVER: Where else to begin? Which end shall we start it from? I guess we could start at the end, which is to say that for whatever weird combination of reasons, I think I’ve made these choices, and maybe they’re sort of typical of being at the end of this century. There are an awful lot of different kinds of things that I’ve tried to juggle in my work, and many feelings and forms of expression that I’ve tried to bring together — and this remains not so easy to do. A lot of what I’ve been concerned with is, as you say, bringing the directness of live performance together with these crazy machines, which, even though they’re getting better and better, are still hard to manage. I mean, it’s still going to take another several generations before all of these machines feel as natural as the instruments that we grew up using. And I think it’s actually crazy that at the end of the 20th century, bringing humanism and science together is still not as easy as it should be, and bringing serious, sophisticated work that also reaches a general intelligent public is still not as easy as it should be, and bringing the art world and the entertainment world together is also elusive. So I think, hopefully, part of what we’ll cover is why its important to do these things, and how they’re starting to fit together, and why some of them still remain not so easy to bring together. I’m afraid there isn’t a simple answer to all of this.


Bounce -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [67 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Chansons d’Amour for piano (1982)
Robert Shannon – piano
from the CD Tod Machover: Bounce; Chansons d’Amour
{Bridge BCD 9040; distributed by Koch International}
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FRANK J. OTERI: You say “these instruments that we all grew up with and all got to know about,” how did you get into the whole electronic instrument thing from the very beginning?

TOD MACHOVER: I started out as a performer… I grew up in New York. My mom’s a pianist, a piano teacher and very involved with new ways of teaching music to kids. My dad’s a computer scientist, one of the first people in computer graphics. So I grew up being very interested in music and also having technology around the house. I’m a cellist, so I’ve always loved performing, and I think because it’s a string instrument, melody has always been very central to what I’ve been interested in and I think the physicality of playing something like a cello has always been very present. I started getting interested in rock music around the time Sgt. Pepper’s came out, something like that, when I was in junior high, and started amplifying my cello and doing recordings of things and manipulating them on a little tape recorder we had, and basically got interested in electronics… I was never personally interested in patch cords and analog synthesizers; computers somehow that clicked for me, the idea of being able to imagine something I wanted to produce and then have this kind of moldable, general system that you could turn into anything you wanted to. So it was when I was at Juilliard, actually, when I was studying with Elliott Carter, that I first got interested in computers. I remember really well, I wrote a string trio, where — I think I was trying to be more extreme than Elliott at that point — a lot of the structure of the piece was based on these three strings instruments going in and out of phase with each other, and I wrote it all out in very precise notation so that there were rare moments when anybody was synchronized, and it was all metered, but there was never any pulse, so it was just perversely difficult to play. So I found somebody to teach me FORTRAN so that I could make a little tape of this piece to convince somebody to play it. It was as simple as that. And so I learned FORTRAN, and there was a punch-card system down at City University of New York, in Midtown, and so I made this tape. That was a very kind of specific thing to do, but I got interested in this idea of being able to go straight from the imagination to programming this machine to produce anything I wanted.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now you never thought of the FORTRAN tape as the end-resultant performance, you were always thinking, “Okay, I’ll have this FORTRAN tape and then musicians will want to do it”? A lot of other composers went down the road of writing specifically for computers and that that was the end-result performance. Why didn’t that interest you?

TOD MACHOVER: In my gut, I believed personally at that point that it sounded awful. It was very schematic… I mean, most things were missing. The one thing that wasn’t missing was enough of an idea of the structure, the harmony, the rhythm, the flow — the things that people couldn’t imagine just from the score, that it would help people… In fact, I did convince people to play that piece and a couple of others. So at that point, I knew that it was a really reduced form of what I was imagining. But I think I also intuitively realized that there was just incredible power behind two things: One, the ability of imagining almost anything and to turn it into sound; and two, the ability to mold your musical materials interactively, as a sculptor molds clay. I mean, once you understand what programming can do, and you understand the generality of a computer, even 20 years ago, because this was in the mid ’70s, late ’70s, I think it was pretty easy to figure out that this was just going to blossom and that it was really a different way of going from your imagination to something real. Even the fact of being able to make just a terrible reduced mock-up of a piece also suggested something else to me, which is at that time at a place like Juilliard, which is even nowadays still true in some ways, a lot of the classical training for composers, certainly at most conservatories, is it’s still based on the Beethoven model of composing, part of which is really good. You know, you develop your technique; you develop your inner ear; you develop integrity for thinking through musical ideas. But I think it’s also a kind of macho idea that a composer’s supposed to be deaf.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right, and you think it in your head and you’ve got this complete vision, and there’s no sense of discovery…

TOD MACHOVER: … There’s no trial and error, no hands-on playing with the actual musical material.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s all laboratory??

TOD MACHOVER: Right, and I think it’s incredibly important; I think it’s really valuable to have both. I think these days, with MIDI and the incredible facility to make anything happen in sound, it’s gone probably too far in the other direction, where lots of people grow up learning composition with their hands on a keyboard and not imagining things in their heads. But I think that twenty years ago, I had this intuition that if you took your inner training and the ability to think about music structure, and also had the ability to experiment and actually play with musical material, it would be just a fantastic combination. You really needed both. So at I got very interested in was how to make the materials available that you needed to try things out as a composer, and eventually to have electronic materials that would be constructed very meticulously and also could be manipulated expressively. So I went to IRCAM in Paris, pretty soon after it was starting. I did my master’s at Juilliard and started the doctoral program and then got invited to go to IRCAM for a year after I’d done a year in the doctoral program and took a leave of absence from Juilliard and ended up staying at IRCAM for seven years.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what was the reaction at IRCAM to a young American who was interested in Sgt. Pepper’s?

TOD MACHOVER: Actually, by the time I got to IRCAM, I wasn’t that interested in pop music anymore. I’d been really interested in pop music, and rock music especially, through high school into the beginnings of really starting to compose. And then during the time I was at Juilliard, I was much more interested in everything from late Beethoven to especially the first half of the 20th century, especially the 2nd Viennese School, and Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio. And actually, to be honest, when I first went to IRCAM, part of the reason I went there — besides being interested in music and technology — was that I was fascinated by Pierre Boulez’s music and the whole European avant-garde tradition. For instance, I wasn’t at all interested in John Cage‘s music when I first went to IRCAM. And one of the funny things that happened was that the longer I stayed in Paris — while learning an enormous amount, both about technology and about the European way of thinking about music — the more I came to value a lot of things about American music that I’d sort of taken for granted by growing up here. I started to love John Cage’s music and love Ives‘s music and love a wide variety of things that I wasn’t interested in when I was at Juilliard. And I also started to find my own personal voice as a composer — I was 22 years old when I went over to Paris — and the more it came out as kind of a (very un-French!) hybrid… And I started thinking about rock music again as something that meant an enormous amount to me, especially for texture and timbre and rhythmic vitality.

FRANK J. OTERI: And for immediacy with audiences.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, I think partly immediacy with audiences, but also partly I think an incredible freshness and kind of incendiary quality of being on the edge, which classic rock and pop music seldom has anymore. I think that more than being accessible, I’ve always been looking for something which just makes people pay attention and listen carefully.

FRANK J. OTERI: Something that’s pushing the envelope in some ways.

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, and I think that how you do that in a way that invites people in, and also is surprising in just the right way, is something that you have to keep reinventing. It’s not so simple.

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