Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

8. Elevator Music

FRANK J. OTERI: But once again, talking about this notion, you mentioned sweat and other things, those would be things that would be beyond someone’s own control. You wouldn’t be able to manipulate it the way you would, say, a piano or a clarinet. Involuntary body movements would cause certain sounds. This is one of the things that’s so interesting about the theremin. Unless you’re completely still, all these other sounds happen that you don’t want to have happen because you’re moving.

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TOD MACHOVER: Well, this is another very, very profound question for the next generation of work. So far we’ve talked about instruments that are designed for virtuosi. Something that somebody can really practice, play skillfully, learn to master, and thus have it expand what you can do with an instrument. We’ve talked about new interfaces that look completely different but which can still be controlled and manipulated. You want something that still has the same notion of control and a different kind of virtuosity. You want it to be sensitive; you want it to be fun to touch. When you start thinking about things that you wear or environments that respond to your movements or “feelings”… We talked a little while ago about composers designing pieces which invite a listener to explore them or to shape them, and the subversive sense of having listeners become familiar with your music while playing and exploring. But go a step further and think of a piece of music as not necessarily something which has a beginning and an end, which you must sit down either at home or at a concert to listen to, as something that is an active part of your environment. Glenn Gould, 30 years ago, wrote a famous article for High Fidelity magazine, where he said that — you know, Gould was even more perverse than I am — elevator music could be turned on its head to become the most wonderful, interactive, immersive ways of sensitizing the general public to the wonders of music. Elevator music is, you know, a dirty word for all of us.

FRANK J. OTERI: You can change the sonic environment. I know there’s a wonderful sound installation in a subway station in New York City, where you walk by it and it creates music. And if you put your hand in a certain place, it does a certain thing. You put your hand in another place… You mean that sort of thing?

TOD MACHOVER: Well, Gould had this idea that although elevator music is horrible now, because it’s designed for all the wrong reasons – to do mind and mood control – its ubiquity could be turned into a strong and positive feature. But he said, “Okay, what if we took this fact that music is piped all over the place, and people seem to want music around, and used it for brain stimulation instead of for brainwashing…” He thought of elevator music of the future as being a kind of ear training, where you’d actually be teaching people about intervals and relationships and musical structure through this environmental music. And then the next step would be a kind of elevator music that people could somehow shape and manipulate in their living rooms or at home. A composition that would come partially designed and partially needing your input. I actually think it’s a wonderful vision. His idealistic view was that through this kind of elevator music ear training, music would replace language and become our general form of communication, directly tapping into the emotions. The area in between elevator music and music composition is one of the most fruitful fields to explore right now. What happens when a piece of music is something that the public gets to participate in and is something which is kind of around you all the time. Maybe it’s around you because through your clothing you can call things up and shape it. Maybe it’s around you because your clothing or a special object allows you to give a kind of signal to the environment. Imagine if you had a great home theater set-up in your living room, and you had a CD or downloaded music with elements of a composition that you set up for somebody, and also had some rules which said that once you started it up it would recognize your gestures or it would recognize various controls, which would let you shape it, control it, call up parts of it, etc. An even bolder step would be to design sonic environments which respond in subtle ways to your presence and behavior without your conscious control, which would turn our current environmental noise pollution into something interesting, inviting, invigorating. I saw a great article in the Atlantic Monthly about a year ago, where somebody was talking about how horribly noisy all our machines are-our refrigerator, the air conditioner, and outside noise. All this uncontrolled noise, which is not interesting, terrible, not tuned, not controllable, not designed by anybody. So what if we thought of a kind of musical counterpoint to our everyday lives that you could turn it off if you wanted to, but otherwise would be a continuous, sonic counterpoint. Maybe you could take conscious control of if you wanted to. So if you picked up your conducting tool or if you had your squeezy ball, you could say, “Now I want to play with this, and I’m going to try to shape it.” But if you didn’t do that…

FRANK J. OTERI: There would still be something there.

TOD MACHOVER: Not only that, but it would be kind of paying attention to and adapting itself to what you were doing, how you were behaving. The sort of silly way to think about that is that it would be monkeying, mimicking, mirroring. With technology these days, you can imagine a system which would be playing this stuff, and if it sensed that you were kind of tired…

FRANK J. OTERI: Fade out.

TOD MACHOVER: Right, but a more interesting thing would be to design a kind of real counterpoint, so that it wouldn’t be obvious one way or another. It would have enough interesting features so that sometimes it might follow your behavior, but at others it might ignore or contradict you. Somebody like George Lewis, for instance, has spent his whole career figuring out how to make improvisational computer systems that improvise with other musicians and that have enough personality to it — I don’t want to call it smarts — but personality that it behaves with this kind of intelligent unpredictability that you’d expect from another person. It doesn’t just imitate what you’re playing; it doesn’t just do the opposite of what you’re doing, it kind of decides when it wants to listen, when it wants to stop, when it wants to surprise you, when it wants to irritate you, when to take something that you’ve done to vary or ornament or extend. Just like a really interesting musical partner would do. I think it would be very interesting to think of sonic environments, especially in homes…

FRANK J. OTERI: It would be sort of a new form of music minus one.

TOD MACHOVER: I think it would be an active music environment composition that could be played if you wanted to. But if you didn’t want to be interactive with it, it would be a kind of accompaniment to your everyday life or something like that. It brings up the question of the difference between conscious control and the whole field, which is opening up now, of being able to measure unconscious things that people are doing. There’s a whole field of research that’s developing at the Media Lab now called affective computing, which basically means measuring things that people do that they’re not aware of. Most of the ways that we express ourselves — through hand gestures, through facial expressions, through body language, whatever — are things that we’re not consciously aware of… I mean, they’re things that we feel, but we’re not aware of doing. We’re not conducting, we’re not performing. But they’re very central to who we are and how we project. And computers are starting to be able to measure some of those things, and it brings up enormous ethical, moral and creative questions about what to do, how to use that information? We talk about hyperinstruments that allow somebody to play a cello and then amplify their musicality so that it’s not just a cello sound but many other sounds and musical that are under your control. But we could make something that sort of makes up your theme music and then amplifies emotions that maybe you don’t want other people to know about.

FRANK J. OTERI: And then all of a sudden it could become too personal…

TOD MACHOVER: Right, clearly that’s an invasive, embarrassing thing. I think in a home situation, where you’re alone, its one thing, but in public… This is a very, very rich creative area, where we can take people’s everyday behavior, not necessarily musical behavior, and combine it with a very sensitive, interactive musical environment, which will integrate with something that you’ve put in as a composition, something that I’m consciously controlling, something that I’m not paying attention to — all of this together will create a musical experience which I think will be informative, surprising, and really new. I think nobody’s done this yet, and I think will blossom over the next 10 to 20 years.

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