Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

2. Classic Hyperinstruments

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting that you mention Cage, because Cage is a perfect example of a composer for whom every piece was a laboratory, every piece was an experiment. And in working with these new instruments… a lot of the pieces that you develop are for people, actually audience members, to play themselves. They’re participatory instruments. And one could argue that the program that goes into designing these instruments is the piece, and the outcome is always different, because audience members play these instruments and it becomes an interactive environment, where they’re in essence composing the music that they’re hearing. They’re creating it as improvising performers in real time, but they’re really working within the parameters of the programs that you’ve designed so that the program then is the piece.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, the first interactive instruments I designed were actually based on a somewhat different model. While at IRCAM in 1981, I composed one of the first pieces, “Fusione Fugace” for solo performance on a real-time digital synthesizer, called the 4X machine. For this piece we designed special keyboards, buttons, and slider boxes which allowed three interconnected performers to control all aspects of a complex evolving timbres. When I got to the Media Lab in 1985, I became interested in adding “intelligence” to the computers sitting between performance controllers and MIDI sound output devices. We coined the term “hyperinstruments” in 1986 to describe interactive instruments that gave skilled performers enhanced expressive capabilities. The technique was first used in 1987 for my opera Valis, commissioned for the 10th anniversary of Paris’ Centre Pompidou, and allowed two performers — on keyboard and percussion — to shape and control a whole evening’s worth of complex electronic sound. A next stage for this work was in 1991, when we designed a hypercello for Yo-Yo Ma, and I composed “Begin Again Again…“. Complex physical sensors on the cello, bow, and wrist allowed Yo-Yo to shape each extended performance differently. Paradoxically, as our “virtuosic” hyperinstruments got better, I saw the possibilities of using such advanced measurement and enhancing techniques to build hyperinstruments for non-professional musicians, the general public, children, etc. After the hypercello, we designed a “Sensor Chair” which measured the electricity flowing through your body when you sat on the chair, allowing hand and body movement to control music very precisely. I considered this a kind of “virtuosic” instrument for amateurs, and it led to me thinking about making a whole orchestra of these instruments for the general public. This in turn led to the Brain Opera, which premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1996 and which will be permanently installed at the new House of Music in Vienna in Spring 2000. And this past year, I worked on the Meteorite project in Essen, Germany, where we created a permanent, underground building — with a kind of walk-through opera — where the public can play, shape and modify music and images on a fairly large scale.

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