Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tod Machover and Musical Innovation

The MIT Media Research Lab, started in 1985, has fascinated me because it creates the future, or what the future could be. It brings together designers, engineers, artists, and scientists to work within research groups, which are then further divided into projects.

Here are the 25 research groups.

There are two research groups devoted to music:

  • "The Music, Mind and Machine group is working towards bridging the gap between the current generation of audio technologies and those that will be needed for future interactive media applications."

  • The other group, Opera of the Future, is headed by Tod Machover, whose ideas I want to discuss in this blog post.
  • The Opera of the Future group (also known as Hyperinstruments) explores concepts and techniques to help advance the future of musical composition, performance, learning, and expression. Through the design of new interfaces for both professional virtuosi and amateur music-lovers, the development of new techniques for interpreting and mapping expressive gesture, and the application of these technologies to innovative compositions and experiences, we seek to enhance music as a performance art, and to develop its transformative power as counterpoint to our everyday lives. The scope of our research includes musical instrument design, concepts for new performance spaces, interactive touring and permanent installations, and "music toys." It ranges from extensions of traditional forms to radical departures, such as the Brain Opera, Toy Symphony and Death and the Powers.
    There are 16 projects in this research group. These are the ones that interest me the most:

    The scope of our research includes music instrument design, concepts for new performance spaces, interactive touring and permanent installations, and "music toys", and ranges from an extension of traditional forms, to radical departures such as the Brain Opera and Toy Symphony. (Here are some of the creations.)
    Personal Opera
    This development is based on two guiding principles: first, that active music creation yields far more powerful benefits than passive listening; and second, that increasing customization of the musical experience is both desirable and possible, as evidenced in our group's development of Personal Instruments (see Music, Mind, and Health) and Personal Music. Personal Opera goes a step further, using music as the medium for assembling and conveying our own individual legacies, representing a new form of archiving, easy to use and powerful to experience.
    Hyperscore is a graphical computer-assisted composition program intended to make composing music accessible to users without musical training as well as experienced musicians. The software maps complex musical concepts to intuitive visual representations. Color, shape, and texture are used to convey high-level musical features such as timbre, melodic contour, and harmonic tension.
    Machover's work allows average people (who I have labeled "people formerly known as fans") to become more involved in music creation and participation.

    Because not everyone is familiar with Machover, I wanted to do a blog post devoted to his ideas. I've pulled some quotes:

    On giving untrained people easy-to-use tools.
  • Music exerts its power when we are actively engaged, not when we listen subliminally. For this reason, I have been working with my group at the MIT Media Lab to create musical tools – often with specially designed technologies – that enable everyone to participate directly in music-making regardless of background....

    In my view, a prime example of the kind of new musical ‘ecology’ that we should seek is found in our culture’s relationship with cuisine. We all enjoy eating at three-star restaurants and admire the achievements of the world’s greatest chefs. At the same time, we do not hesitate to dive in ourselves to prepare special meals of high quality on special occasions. We also put together daily meals for ourselves, improvising content that reflects our personal styles. We enjoy eating and even studying the most ‘expert’ cuisine we can find, but are not scared to make and invent our own. In turn, the fact that we constantly prepare food ourselves makes us better understand and appreciate other food that we encounter.

    Music – and most of the arts – has come very far from such a ‘healthy’ ecology, and it is this that we need to reinvent. Technology can help, as it can act as a bridge to each of us depending on our background and experience, taking advantage of our skills and compensating for our limitations. Even more importantly, we need to establish a fundamentally new partnership between all of the potential participants in our musical culture, including individual artists, all parts of the music business, technology, lifestyle, health and social organisations, music presenting and broadcasting entities, research institutions, artists-as-mentors and – last but not least – the music-loving public. Only in this way can we establish a culture that will allow music to reach its full potential in shaping and transforming our experience. Doing so will allow music to exert its most powerful possible influence on society at large. Surely we can imagine a world where music is at least as nourishing as a three-star meal? "Beyond Guitar Hero - Towards a New Musical Ecology," RSA Journal, January–March 2009.
  • "I think most people, given the opportunity and the right context and maybe the right tools, have far more ability to express themselves and to do original things than (1) they’re given credit for and (2) than they realize themselves,” he says. “One goal should be to help anyone who has a natural inclination to a certain kind of thing go as far as they can.” ...

    “You want everybody’s talent to be developed to the fullest extent,” he says. “Even Mozart’s -- you want to find a way that, through the tool, the experience, and the culture, the person has every possibility to go further than he or she ever expected. But you want that for everybody."

    ... Machover says that he isn’t helping people become prodigies; he’s helping them become active amateurs. And raising the bar for everyone -- from virtuosos to those who sing in the car with the windows rolled up -- is nothing but beneficial. The good will continue to get better, and the general populace’s ability to appreciate the good will improve too.

    “Right now, we have a culture where if there were a Mozart, you’re not sure that some large percentage of people would recognize it or know the difference, really,” Machover says with a laugh. “So there’s a real advantage in just having as many people as possible be open-minded and aware and pushing themselves as far as possible.” "Manufacturing Greatness," American Way Magazine, 1/15/09.
  • On the subject of stars and heroes and virtuosi, Machover accepted that every society naturally wants to help exceptional artists succeed, but that in our own, an unhealthy gulf exists between great artists and everyone else “just making things” and very visible on My Space. Not only now, he argued, but in the renaissance time of Byrd and Downland, their “genius” flowered in a rich culture of lots and lots of people able to make music. Similarly, Mozart and Beethoven were the best of a deep strata of musicianship. His final analogy was cuisine. We need, he declares, a new “ecology of music”, in which we have access to the 3-star, the takeout order, the home-made dinner and the quick-fix sandwich. This ecology depends on awareness – on teaching kids where music comes from “because if you made something yourself, in the right context, you really learn something about the value of doing it well” – and on stars and experts who “keep the level up” with their insights and skills. "The future of music and the future of design," Design & Society, 1/16/09.
  • On giving children more tools.
  • "It's so difficult, physically to learn a traditional musical instrument,'' he said. ''The smartest kids take a lot of time just to master the interface -- to say nothing of creativity -- before you're expressing something, and way before you're expressing something individual.

    ''I think that what I've tried to do in all this work is to emphasize creativity over virtuosity.'' ...

    [The following is a comment in the article by its author, James Gorman.] When I tried the Beatbugs and Music Shapers I felt a tactile surge of pleasure more than an intellectual one. The instruments are, of course, less demanding than traditional ones, and in the end might be less enriching. But they are not designed as ends. They are designed to offer the pleasure of music before the pain of making fingers do unheard of things. "Playing Music as a Toy, and a Toy as Music," New York Times, 6/3/03.
  • He was inspired to develop Hyperscore after discovering how few music-instruction options existed for his young daughters. Although children are encouraged to tell stories without knowing grammar and to paint without study, years of rigorous training typically precede Junior's Opus 1. ''There seems to be a deeply embedded sense that you have to learn a lot before you can write music,'' he said.

    So he set out to create software that would convert expressive gestures -- lines, patterns, textures and colors -- made on the screen into pleasing and variable sounds. The goal, he said, is to let children have ''the direct experience of translating their own thoughts and feelings into music.''

    ''Then music becomes a living, personal activity, and not a given which is handed down from experts or from history.'' "From a Few Colored Lines Come the Sounds of Music," New York Times, 5/27/02.
  • On creating an interactive presentation.
    We are searching for something between top-down authority and complete anarchy--the interesting balance in between. We live in a very fragmented world in which people often feel out of control. What we are doing here is more than putting together notes of music; we are trying to touch people's lives. The hope is that art can provide a model for how people can come together and interact in other aspects of their lives.

    The traditional concert model has all the work done on stage, finished ahead of time and then organized by the conductor--it is like the traditional model of the mind. As a result, of all the arts, music requires the most work because the imagination has to fill in all the details. The seriousness with which people approach music is frightening; we need to do something because people are forgetting how to listen." "Interview with Tod Machover,"Scientific American, 7/29/1996.
    On making the world more musical.
    I imagine musical instruments built into our environments - our furniture, clothing, walls, handheld objects - that will project our conscious and unconscious intentions onto our surroundings. A concert then would not be a special occasion but always around us, meaningful sound responding to our subtle commands, mirroring our attitudes, enhancing our actions at some moments, providing counterpoint or contradiction at others. Perhaps five or ten years down the line we will have developed a Home Opera, designed to be experienced in the place where one is most comfortable, completely vivid and theatrical, yet personalized for and by each individual.

    [Glenn] Gould went even further, predicting that "in the electronic age the art of music will become much more viably a part of our lives, much less an ornament to them, and that it will consequently change them much more profoundly." Our goal is to figure out how - in technological, musical, and human terms - to turn Gould's fabulous vision into reality. "The Brain Opera and Active Music."
    Two of Machover's former students, Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, founded Harmonix, which created Guitar Hero and Rock Band. They applied Machover's concepts.
    When they formed Harmonix, their goal was to develop games that could make people feel like rock stars—in their living rooms. "The Making of The Beatles: Rock Band," IEEE Spectrum, 9/2009.
    Machover would like to see them take their games even further.
    "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." "A Composer At The Edge Of Sound."NPR, 11/16/08.

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter


    1. Hi Suzanne:

      Excellent post with well-chosen excerpts. It's been interesting to follow along as you've been thinking out loud on Twitter about the "people formerly known as fans" - and the ramifications of their tranformation into ever more-engaged creators.

      However, I hadn't quite seen what you were driving at (and, coincidentally, came close to DMing you this morning to ask if you could elaborate) until now. Machover's excellent culinary analogy really illuminates things for me - thanks for bringing it to my (and our) attention!

      ~ Mike/Radio Nowhere

    2. The focus of a lot of future of the music business discussions in the past year have been about "direct-to-fan" sales and 1000 fans. In other words, people are assuming the business model will still involve artists playing for and selling to fans.

      I'm trying to shake things up a bit and suggest that the music business may not unfold this way and, at the very least, the "artists-with-their fans" model is definitely not very revolutionary or forward-thinking enough.

      There are a variety of reasons why I think the trend may be headed this way:

      1. Live shows often seem to be a way for fans to highlight themselves (via sending text messages about the concert to their friends, taking photos and emailing them to friends or posting them online, videotaping to upload on YouTube, etc.). So I see live music being as much or more about the fans wanting to be the center of attention than it is about listening to the music.

      2. Economic trends. If people are becoming permanently more frugal, they may not spend a lot on music-related items. If they can get some satisfaction by hanging out with friends at backyard jams, they may go for it.

      3. Technology is allowing more people to play with the musical process. YouTube, music video games, music iPhone applications. These are all ways for people to get involved, often with little or no skill. As technology gets better, it can do even more to produce music for people. It isn't so much that they will create great music. It will be enough that they feel they have done something worth sharing.

      4. Crowdsourcing. The Internet is allowing more people to collaborate. Therefore they are learning about participatory culture. I think the idea of being passive fans is going to be less appealing to them.

      5. Music consumption changes. Compare classical music audiences to rock concert audiences. As times change, people change how they listen to music.

      In summation, just as MP3s were a disruptive technology for the music business of the 2000s, I think technologies that allow everyone to be a music creator/producer/promoter will be disruptive technologies in the future.

      We have gone from major labels selling millions of copies, to independent artists selling or giving away thousands of copies, to perhaps millions of people sharing music with 10 to 100 of their closest friends.

      If some of my visions of the future are correct, then the music business has to change some more. More people making money; less money, on average, going to each artist.


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