2010 World Science Festival Blog

Maybe you think you already know enough about music. After all, we’ve been experiencing and describing it for ages. Beethoven called music the "mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life." Others know it as the "universal language" or the "voice of angels." T.S. Eliot said "you are the music while the music lasts."

But many of these sentiments only heighten the musical mysteries legendary "wired" composer Tod Machover has spent his career trying to answer–Questions like: How can music help order emerge from the mind’s chaos or conjure thoughts, emotions and memories? Can we learn about the mind by stretching the bounds of music practice and performance? What would it feel like to create music the way the brain creates thoughts?

In Machover and Minsky: Making Music in the Dome, we’ll discuss these questions with Machover himself along with Artificial Intelligence visionary Marvin Minsky, who’s writings and conversations on the philosophy of the mind inspired Machover’s landmark musical experiment, the Brain Opera. We’ll also be treated to a sneak peak of Machover’s newest musical work, Death and the Powers with an aria by the lovely Soprano Joélle Harvey.

Wondering what on earth a Brain Opera is? It all starts with Minsky, who described the mind as a decentralized consciousness. In this view, instead of a single ruling impulse controlling the mind, a mass of disparate impulses coalesce into, well… us. Machover’s Brain Opera brought this theory to life, inviting its audience to create musical elements by interacting with hyperinstruments –robotic and digital inventions that translate human thought and movement into sound. (For a sense of what this means, the videos second from the bottom on this page) The idea was for audiences to get a feel for Minsky’s vision of the mind from the inside out; Instead of a conductor ruling over the orchestra, individual human inputs coalesce into music. 

Does the philosophy come across in the musical experience? You be the judge during this June 3rd program as sound and light reverberate through the Hayden Planetarium’s spherical Space Theater. In the mean time, you can get a preview of the upcoming Death and the Powers in this NYTimes video. Machover’s new opera will tackle even more questions about the nature of human consciousness and the rules of music as it follows the story of Simon Powers, a man longing to leave part of himself behind when he departs the physical world. The mind-bending piece will employ a host of specially designed technology including a chorus of robots and a musical chandelier to follow Powers as he leaves his body and comes to inhabit the entire stage.

For more on the tech behind these performances, browse some of the MIT Media lab’s hyperintstruments. Capitalizing on the fact that the human body holds an electric charge, these sound machines generate electric fields and then translate the way our presence interferes with them into music. Various computer softwares determine what sounds result and how they are manipulated by the body’s interference, and to court a range of human-machine collaborations, the Media lab’s hyperinstrument creations have taken the form of everything from a fabric ball to a violin bow to plastic "bugs" to a chandelier.

According to Minsky, your brain might not be the "you" you think it is. But in Machover’s hands, we can all be the music…while the music lasts.

—Molika Ashford