Aria Experienced? Brain Opera Doesn't Care banner Fidelity
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February 29, 1996
arts@large By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL

Aria Experienced? Brain Opera Doesn't Care

From Verdi's Anvil Chorus to Hammer's rap samplings, the incorporation of "real" sounds into music has become an increasingly common practice.

Just this month, Steve Reich's ensemble gave the first New York performance of his "City Life," which successfully weds strings, reeds and percussion with pulsating patterns powered by the keyboard-triggered tones of car alarms, boat horns and heartbeats.

Now Tod Machover, a composer and inventor, is getting the audience -- including Internet users -- into the act.

Starting on Friday, Machover (pronounced MACK-over) and his collaborators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory will ask visitors to the World Wide Web site for Brain Opera to submit personal audio and video material, much of which will become a vital element in the complex, pioneering work when it premieres on July 23 as part of the inaugural Lincoln Center Festival.

And some sections of Brain Opera will feature the live involvement of a real-time Web audience, Machover revealed in a recent interview about his latest composition.

Brain Opera is as far from conventional Wagnerian drama as the EPCOT Center is from Bayreuth. Staged in a carefully constructed environment that is part concert hall and part video arcade, the piece is a highly interactive concerto for its audience -- both real and virtual -- and an orchestra of computer-driven "hyperinstruments."

While there is no story line, the piece is a lifesize illustration of The Society of Mind, the book by Marvin Minsky, the MIT artificial-intelligence guru, proposing that human personality is not controlled by a centralized conductor in the brain but instead emerges from the interaction between a multitude of loosely connected mental processes called "agents."

"This is an opera in every sense except for the linear narrative, which it doesn't have," Machover states. "It certainly has lots of voices, professional and amateur, singing and speaking all over the place. The whole texture will actually be very vocal."

But Machover asserts that the work does have "a significant dramatic progression," one that reflects Minsky's theories. He describes "the voyage of each audience member through the maze of fragments, thoughts and memories to collective and coherent experience."

"Just the process of understanding the scenario of each instrument -- how it is played and what it means -- and seeing how these turn into full musical structures in the performance will be a very rich story," he said.

Machover and the two dozen artists, musicians, programmers and technicians on his creative team want the Brain Opera audience to think about thinking, especially musical thinking, and they are seeking sounds, text and images to represent it.

"I hope to receive rather short 1- to 10-second sonic contributions that are a distilled representation of something important and intimate to whoever sends it: a thought, an impression, a memory, a self-analysis, a view of one's surroundings, all turned into sound," Machover says.

"We are trying to phrase our requests in such a way that the exact type of sound world is not restricted at all," he continues. "If we do this right, then I think we will get very personal and varied materials, some pretty straightforward, others elaborately constructed, some talking, some music, some sound collage. I want these things to be imaginative and not literal."

Technical specifications for submissions will be available at the Web site. Once collected and sorted, the material will be woven into pre-composed portions of the work or be at the ready for use during the more spontaneous segments of each performance.

The site itself, which uses frames and thus requires Netscape's Navigator 2.0 to be accessed, is rather elegant in its simplicity, although the primarily black-and-white pages most resemble X-rays. Clicking on sepia-toned icons of an eye, ear, mouth or brain leads to extensive background on Machover, his hyperinstruments and other Brain Opera information, as well as to the future entry point for viewing the work's performances in real-time.

Maribeth Back, an interactive sound designer for Brain Opera, said that the group was " developing lower-end versions of the site for non-Netscape browsers," but said that she did no know when they would be available.

With five months before his new work premiers, Machover is still writing the music for Brain Opera. "If I had to quantify, I'd say that 60 percent of the music will be composed or carefully planned, and 40 percent will be open to vast differences in material or structure from performance to performance," he says.

Audio Sample of composed material for Brain Opera.

"More important is that the way in which pre-composed and new material is combined will vary from section to section. There are actually at least 20 different models in Brain Opera of how preexisting music and modifications by the audience and performers can be combined. I use these different models not just because I don't know which is best, but because each has a different feel to it."

Brain Opera is divided into three sections, an overture and two acts, with each section taking place in a different area. The overture occurs in front of a large interactive billboard, which responds in sight and sound to the crowd assembled before it and the presence of Internet viewers.

Once inside the maze-like lobby setting for the first act, audience members can wander freely for an hour among the 30 stations for six different kinds of hyperinstruments, computer-controlled devices that are programmed to respond musically to player input.

Machover began building hyperinstruments in 1986. While the first models were developed for skilled musicians, including a "hypercello" for the virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma, more recent versions are designed so that anyone can play them.

For example, the melody easel is a transparent rubber pad that allows tunes to be "drawn" with the touch of a finger, with the slightest motion changing volume, tempo, timbre and embellishment. Brain Opera themes can be rehearsed by connecting dots.

"The goal of the melody easel is to give people the experience of shaping and perfecting beautiful single-line melodies by using one finger," Machover says. "It should feel like being Jascha Heifetz on the violin, adding nuance and expression to a simple melody."

Perhaps the hyperinstrument with the highest pure-entertainment potential is a music-generating device built around the metaphor of a video arcade driving game. Sitting in front of a screen with a specially designed steering wheel, joystick and foot pedal for controls, users can follow the road to generate generic music, or they can earn points for creating interest by following detours, veering suddenly or causing crashes.

Machover expects that home computer users will soon be able to download PC versions of this and other hyperinstruments, some of which can be used to accompany and contribute to each live performance.

The final 45-minute act of Brain Opera is in a nightclub-like setting, where audience members can dance in the middle or sit to the side while images are projected on the wall, floor and ceiling. Sensors in the room's carpet and head-level radar beams will measure movement and "people energy" in the space, influencing the shape of the piece

"Electrostatic sensors will measure interruptions in electromagnetic currents caused by the presence of living human bodies, for example," Back said, "and radar will measure the presence of any object, human or not. We convert this data into some performance parameter. Heat would be problematic." .

Minsky's theories preempt the role of a conductor, but three trained performers equipped with hyperinstruments -- including a "digital baton" that reacts to finger placement, palm pressure and movement -- will select, modify and combine audio and video material from diverse sources, including Internet contributions and audience activities from the overture and first act.

"They will be sampling these contributions as the opera unfolds," says Maggie Orth, the opera's production manager. "They will learn what gestures, motions and squeezes will sample what contributions. This involves rehearsal and some memorization. Our algorithms will select outside contributions, so some specific parameters will be known, but there also will be an element of the unknown, which is improvisational and therefore significant to live performance."

Machover says: "Most Internet samples are not necessarily incorporated immediately into performances, although they might be. Things can be sent at any time, and we can sift and select them at leisure. It is more critical that samples recorded by the live audience in the lobby immediately become part of the performance they will hear."

For one segment of the finale, called "Net-Shape," he says, "The Internet crowd can actually manipulate on-line instruments to influence the music made at Lincoln Center or wherever. This is really interesting, and totally new, I think."

The no-two-alike nature of the piece is reminiscent of John Cage's use of the random in works like Music of Changes and the radio-based Imaginary Landscape Number 4, a reference point that Machover encourages. "I'm looking for a model somewhere in between Bach and Cage, a new balance that somehow incorporates the richness of both," he says.

Brain Opera will be performed at Lincoln Center from 1 P.M. to 8 P.M., with shows on the hour, beginning with its July 23 premiere through Aug. 3. Free passes will be distributed beginning at 10 each morning in the Marble Lobby of the Juilliard Theater, 155 W. 65th St. (For a brochure on the Lincoln Center Festival, call 212-875-5132.)

Brian Opera then travels to the Edinburgh Festival, Tokyo and Singapore. Machover says he hopes that all performances will be "hearable" on the Web, and says, "We are still doing tests to see if they can be watchable as well."

Machover, 42, is the son of a pianist mother and a father who is a computer-graphics expert. He is associate professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab, and his new-music credentials are impeccable. He studied with Elliott Carter, among others, and spent seven years as director of musical research at Pierre Boulez's institute in Paris.

Unlike the often thorny inaccessibility of his mentors' masterpieces, however, Machover's music is open and down to earth. This is not unexpected from someone whose collaborators range from Ma to Penn & Teller, or who wrote an opera based on the science-fiction novel Valis by Philip K. Dick.

Previous Machover works have offered a disarmingly natural fusion of acoustic and electronic instruments, and they regularly feature the rhythmic thrust of rock 'n' roll, a natural outgrowth of the high-speed pace the composer keeps.

With Brain Opera, Machover says, he is striving to establish a new paradigm for the relationship between composer, performer and audience: "I really believe that it is important to make a strong statement about the possibility of involving audiences actively in artistic experiences, that this need not be something just for pros or specialists, and that the experiences need not be tentative, flaky experiments but can be powerful and involving."

This is not the only reason he has undertaken this project, though.

"I had to get it out of my system," Machover says. "It hasn't been easy, and lots of people have been looking at me like I'm nuts now for a few years as I talk about this. But I know that I am onto something, and that even if the Brain Opera falls short in various ways, it will leave many things on which others -- and hopefully I, too -- can build."

ARTS@LARGE is published weekly, on Thursdays. Click here for links to other columns in this series.


Related Sites
Following are links to the external Web sites that complement this column. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.

  • The Brain Opera home page contains information on the work, on the composer, Tod Machover, and on how to submit material, but for an indication of the complexity of the project, scan the set of preliminary specifications for its Singapore residency.

  • You can find a list of some of Marvin Minsky's published papers here.

  • The English version of the home page for Pierre Boulez's IRCAM facility is here.

  • There are two unofficial home pages for Steve Reich:
  • Electronic Counterpoint, which is based at MIT, and a Japanese site that delightfully cites the minimalist's "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ" as "Music for Mullet Instruments, Vices and Organ."


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