Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

5. Musical Nose and Sea Anemone

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s one thing to tell somebody you’re doing something, but it’s another to have them figure it out on their own in real time. And this gets back to this notion of education and, whether it’s teaching people sonnets in the classroom or having them actually play instruments to learn about music rather than having sort of an abstract music appreciation experience or learning a foreign language by actually being immersed in it, learning how to speak it. And I think one of the things that’s really amazing about what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been working on with a number of your students is a lot of the projects for children and bringing young children into the process of being fascinated by the joy of their own ability to make sound, to manipulate environments with sound and doing it with objects that you wouldn’t normally associate with music. Everybody knows, well, a keyboard makes music; a violin makes music; a cello makes music. But we have a bunch of objects over here, everything from this denim jacket. This denim jacket makes music; it’s a music-making jacket. These balls make music. I don’t know what these things are…

TOD MACHOVER: Those are actually elements from the Brain Opera.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is a nose.

TOD MACHOVER: It’s a nose, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a musical nose.

TOD MACHOVER: It’s a musical nose.

FRANK J. OTERI: What is the musical nose for?

TOD MACHOVER: There are a few ideas wrapped up in this kind of work. One idea is that if you’re going to try to find alternatives to traditional instruments, you really have to understand what makes those instruments so wonderful, and then translate those qualities — while introducing new ones — in a creative, non-literal way. I think there are a lot of reasons for extending our existing musical instruments through new technology: they sound really great, have pretty good interfaces that have developed over many years, have real personality and expressive range, etc. This is an approach that’s worthwhile. But its also true that our existing instruments are confined by their physical characteristics, are full of associations which are both wonderful yet also tied to the past, and are designed to produce and manipulate certain kinds of sound and not others. Now if you’re going to move away from the world of existing instruments to create totally new ones, the last thing you want to do is to take away all the richness of what we already have, both of sound and of the way people express themselves. The worst thing you can do is to throw away a violin and come up with a shitty keyboard as your future interface. Even electronic keyboard instruments don’t feel anywhere near as good as acoustic instruments do. You basically have a few of options, but in my view only one is fruitful. The bad options are to come up with some computer interface which works well technologically, like a mouse or a keyboard or a joystick, and try to make music with that. That’s what computer companies are going to want you to do, because they’re making millions of those for applications that work pretty well for computers (although I’d argue that mice and keyboards are lousy interfaces for computers too). They’re terrible. So that’s not a good option for music. A second option is making imitations of existing instruments that don’t make any sound on their own, but are designed to send data to a computer, like electronic keyboard controllers…


Bounce -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [55 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: from Bounce (1992)
for Disklavier, Electronic Keyboard & Hyperinstrument Electronics
Robert Shannon – keyboards
from the CD Tod Machover: Bounce; Chansons d’Amour
{Bridge BCD 9040; distributed by Koch International}
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FRANK J. OTERI: Or a lyricon, or guitar synthesizers

TOD MACHOVER: Those are okay, but they’re usually going to be bad versions of existing instruments by taking away the acoustical richness. The only advantage to building interfaces like that is that you take the technique that somebody would have learned on an existing instrument and you plug it in directly to an electronic music environment. So for a short term, that’s not a bad way to go. In the long — if you did want to harness existing instruments — it would be much better to use the full acoustic sound and to find much better ways of analyzing and “understanding” the expression and meaning in that sound than we now know how to do. I think that a lot of the electronic instrument controllers are like castrated instruments or something. They’re instruments with the most interesting part taken away. So I think the right way to go is to abstract or formalize one level higher, to imagine what it feels like to play an instrument, what it feels like to go from your emotions, from your mind, through your body into sound. Don’t try to make a bad computer interface, don’t try to make a natural instrument, but try to make something new that measures what we do physically — stemming from a profound, intuitive impulse — in completely different way. So we’ve been experimenting noses, of course, but with generally with diverse materials and techniques that feel different and behave in new ways. Two of our recent projects, Squeezables and Stretchables, explore the many different interfaces and music-manipulation concepts needed to develop this kind of work.

FRANK J. OTERI: Why noses?

TOD MACHOVER: For the Brain Opera, we wanted to make an enormous rhythm instrument, the Rhythm Tree, something where there would be lots and lots of physical objects — about five hundred of them — in a fairly large space. We wanted things that would be small enough that you could touch them and that would be both sensitive and robust. We also wanted the entire Brain Opera to be as far as possible from any traditional hi-tech associations, so we opted for organic materials, metaphors, and objects — textiles, rubber, and lots of curves, instead of plastic, metal and right angles.

FRANK J. OTERI: What is this?

TOD MACHOVER: It’s kind of like a sea anemone. We wanted a lot of these, each one that could have an individuality to it. We wanted things that would be…

FRANK J. OTERI: You tap and it makes a sound?

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, this is polyurethane rubber, so it’s something which can be squeezed, so it’s sensitive enough that you can kind of touch it lightly and it will measure what you’re doing. But you can also pound the hell out of it and it won’t break.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you can create music from punching a nose?

TOD MACHOVER: Punching a nose or picking a nose or touching a nose. This particular is sensitive and sensuous, and it’s also robust.

FRANK J. OTERI: I see it’s got like two little phone jacks on the back of it.

TOD MACHOVER: That’s right, and it also has what’s called a PIC, which is a complete computer on a little circuit. This computer has enough processing in it to measure when I touch it, how hard I touch it, and where I touch it. You can see it, the camera can’t, it has a little red thing sticking up there that’s actually a sensing wire. It’s made out of something called piezoelectric. It has a little sensing wire which actually vibrates when you touch the nose, and it’s sensitive enough that on that little computer chip to sense how much and in what direction it’s vibrating, so it vibrates differently depending on where I touch it. So this little nose, any one of these individual pads, which are inexpensive to build, is actually pretty sophisticated. Each one does its own processing. It doesn’t make any sound, so that’s what the phone jacks are for. We send the data from this to a central computer which in turn pilots a collection of sound-producing devices. It’s actually a little intelligent computer with a very sensitive interface on it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, theoretically, while we’re still on the topic of the nose and the sea anemone, these are the instruments that people could make sounds with themselves based on parameters that you’ve set up. So, in a way, you couldn’t create just any music you wanted on these.

TOD MACHOVER: Well, this is just an interface. And we are constantly looking to find interfaces which are more sensitive, responsive, and expressive.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s a ball.

TOD MACHOVER: Yeah, this is what we call a Fabric Ball. What we did after making these rubber things was to say, “Well, how could you have something that is even more fun to touch, is lighter, is less expensive, is really squeezable, so something you might give to a 5-year-old and say, ‘Trace your finger on the thread, squeeze it, throw it to a friend.” So the big innovation here was how to find the material which was delicate and firm, how to put a computer on it, and how to measure the presence, pressure, vibrations of delicate touch. The innovation here is how to take thread itself — regular embroidered thread, and use that to measure the electricity in my finger. The thread is the interface, so by touching the thread, it can tell where I’m touching it and it can tell the pressure of my finger on the thread. It’s really a new thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: So how do you rig this up to get sound out of it?

TOD MACHOVER: There are a variety of ways of doing it. Something like this, for instance, is a teeny-weeny MIDI synthesizer that we built. It’s probably one of the smallest. It has a little sound chip and everything you need to control the sound chip. We’re making these smaller and smaller. It’s very light. So you take one of these and put it inside. The thread just sends data straight to that little MIDI chip. That’s all you need to have a full synthesizer controlled by squeezing and touching. One of the big problems these days is something as dumb as how to get loudspeakers which sound good and are small. That’s actually something we’re not doing a lot of research on here and which hopefully somebody who reads NewMusicBox will do! It’s unbelievable. I’m not particularly enamored of electric sound. My dream would be to have new kinds of interfaces that are intuitive, sensuous, sophisticated that end up making sound that is as rich and as three-dimensional and as varied as natural acoustic sound… One way you could do it would be to have a ball like this sending data to, let’s say, a room full of Trimpin instruments manipulating physical things. I think the real trick for the future will be to find some way of combining physical objects that vibrate and make interesting sound themselves, with much higher-quality, small loudspeakers, maybe lots of tiny loud speakers rather than these big, neutral gray-sounding boxes that we have these days. That’s something nobody’s solved yet.

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