Challenges & Possibilities:
An Interview with Tod Machover

by Mic Holwin

Q. What are the biggest challenges that exist to creating orchestra music that uses new technology?

Tod MachoverFirst, there are practical and logistical challenges. Nothing is standardized in technology and its one constant feature is that it constantly changes. Concert halls aren't set up with amplification and microphones--everything you need to put on even the simplest piece becomes difficult in current conditions. Computers and synthesizers become obsolete every six months. New instruments and interfaces are often one-of-a-kind. Anything that involves trying something new--new instruments, new balances, new ideas--is costly. One of our goals should be to change that, to move towards standards for the orchestral integration of new technology.

The second problem is, in my view, a conceptual one. Unlike a solo instrument, the orchestra makes a pretty big racket, and has an enormous tonal and expressive range. A lot of the things that electronics are very good at--detail of sound, large washes of timbre, and enormous dynamic range--the orchestra does pretty well on its own. The kinds of things electronics add, such as getting a sound off the stage (filling up a three-dimensional space with sound), producing intricate detail (going inside a unit of sound that is smaller than a particular instrument), and then developing a kind of continuity of sound that builds bridges between instruments but also serves as a kind of ocean or solution in which all the instruments find their place--are both smaller and larger than what is possible with an acoustic instrument or ensemble. With an orchestra, there is so much range anyway, one of the problems with electronics is how to make the electronics heard, how to give them presence, how to make them actually add something to the texture and quality of an orchestra.

The third issue is the enormous amount of technical problems to make this music fit in with what an orchestra can do. It is very difficult to mic an orchestra. Its not that sensible to imagine that everyone in the orchestra is going to play new, technologically enhanced, instruments--that's just not going to happen. If you have solo instruments, you could imagine something like a concerto form with soloists playing special instruments in front of the orchestra. That's the kind of thing I've done before with my hyperstring concertos. Or you can plant soloists with special instruments within the orchestra. But to me what's so interesting and has been done so little is taking the entire orchestra as an entity--not as a group of soloists, not as an orchestra with electronic soloists, but the orchestra as a huge ensemble, and to try to figure out how it could work with electronics. That is what I've tried to do with my new piece "Sparkler" which will be premiered by ACO as part of Orchestra Tech.

Q. Tell me about your new piece.

"Sparkler" is part of this larger project called Toy Symphony, that includes a whole set of activities designed to introduce kids to music in a very different way, and-also in a slightly subversive way-to try to make orchestras think a little differently about what is possible with new music projects. We are making new instruments, Music Toys, for kids and doing workshops for kids with a series of orchestras. All this leads to a concert-made up of music of mine, commissioned music by emerging composers, and music created by children in each city-that begins with "Sparkler". It is kind of an overture--a fairly compact piece that looks at a lot of different ways of thinking about orchestra and electronics. It is sort of a "Young Persons Guide" to a new kind of orchestra.

Q. What type of technology is employed?

We've developed a set of techniques over this last year to take in audio with no sensors--no special instruments--just suck in the sound. And we have a bunch of new algorithms for analyzing the sound and pulling out perceptual parameters like pitch, brightness, density, stability, spectral energy, etc. About ten features that are very easy to hear and to control.

On the other end we have a series of models that we build--basically complex maps of sound. These maps are constructed automatically; we actually train the computer by giving it various sounds and giving it the controls that make these sounds. The computer does the rest of the work.

We are setting up mics throughout the orchestra, some suspended overhead, some on stage. We're not close micing individual instruments, but trying to take in a good image of the entire orchestra as a single sound source. Then I am setting up a series of algorithms that generate complex textures, looking for parameters that control the way the textures behave. The audio from the orchestra goes into our analysis engine and will pull out all these features. So the audio will directly control the way these algorithms behave. There is a certain amount of freedom for the conductor and the orchestra to balance things and decide what textures and sounds are prominent at what moment.

The whole piece is a kind of sound texture that changes configuration. A sort of texture "blob" that changes over the course of the piece. At the climactic section, the orchestra jabs and pushes, shapes and pulls this texture blob, so that in a very concrete way both to the players and audience it is quite clear that the orchestra is directly controlling the electronics, is dramatically shaping this expressive enhancement of its own playing. It is very difficult to do. Difficult technically, but difficult also conceptually. I really want to create a kind of "hyperorchestra". We've done this with solo instruments, but we haven't done it before with the orchestra. We're sort of sticking our neck out.

Q. Is this the first time you are doing this amount of control with an orchestra?

This is definitely the first time we are doing live audio control. It is so new it isn't working yet! The technique of three keyboards I'll be using-each supplemented with a left-hand gesture control instrument--is similar to what I've done before. But here we are not processing the sound--we're not just amplifying the orchestra. It is the actual sound-the music itself--which is controlling the electronics. And the electronics are constantly playing off of what the orchestra does, not in a slavish or lockstepped way. It should be a very lively relationship.

Q. Why bother with the orchestra, what some would say is an antiquated 19th century form?

I think there are two reasons. The real world reason, and one of the reasons Orchestra Tech is so interesting and challenging, is that orchestras are powerful institutions made up of terrific musicians at the center of a musical community, the place where a community comes together to hear music, and the place that can present ideas and coordinate discussion and thinking about music. Orchestras could be such a galvanizing force. Orchestras should be in the position of leading thinking about the full possibilities of music. Since there are so many challenges to integrating technology in creative, musical ways and there is so much to be done for the promise of technology to be fulfilled, I think orchestras must take a much more forceful lead in current and future musical thought. Rather than doing nothing or simply following what the entertainment industry does, orchestras should be using their influence to help change this field, noweher more important than in the intelligent and sophisticated integration of new technology and media. If we don't write pieces and make models and try bold, new things, that will never happen.

The other thing is that we must find a way to transform the sound and presence of the orchestra into a truly 21st century medium. It is funny with orchestras. They make a huge amount of noise, but in a normal concert hall, the orchestra isn't as present--isn't as much in your face--as when you listen to a CD or when you go to an amplified concert, both experiences that we've all grown up with. So I think there is a really interesting question about how do you take this richness of sound and this wonderful complexity on stage and get it out into the hall and surround people with it--to literally stretch it through the auditorium-so that it has both an incredibly massive and a very delicate, complex presence throughout a hall. Gosh, there's been almost no work done about how to do that, or in general to imagine how to reinvigorate live performance so that it competes with-and complements-all of the various competing electronic media.

Then there is a huge range of possibilities for concerto forms for soloists playing new, enhanced instruments in front or around the orchestra (all kinds of hybrid forms), enormous possibilities that haven't been tapped.

It's not easy to get the right conditions to experiment with these new ideas. But I think it is worth it. I am certain that a magical relationship between orchestra and technology can be developed, and I'd love to see the conditions made available so that this can grow.

Q. What are your hopes for the Orchestra Tech conference?

I think one of the most interesting things is to get into the public's minds, composers' minds, conductors', administrators' and players' minds is, first, that the orchestra has a real role to play in new technology; and second, that almost nothing has yet been done. The people who participate in this conference are all in a position to make a difference and to help build this very exciting new world. I would love to open the door to orchestras accepting the fact that there is a real possibility here.

I think there are a lot of very concrete issues which I hope will be really seriously debated and discussed during the conference. Everything from practical issues--how do you make an orchestra integrate with technology--to new musical forms that are possible because of new sound structures. There are a lot of interesting composers represented who think quite differently about structuring timbre, sound, and musical structure and narrative because of technology, and who think of a kind of hybrid sonic expression. Something only possible with acoustic instruments and electronics together, not with either apart.

More than anything I'd like to trumpet the idea that the orchestra should be the organization that is taking the lead in new music to invent the future ways of integrating technology. Right now orchestras have not been in the forefront and I'd really like to see that changed. We want to get orchestras "psyched" about how exciting it would be if they do take action. Then we can figure out the logistics.

Tod Machover's "Sparkler" receives its world premiere at ACO's October 14 concert.
The premiere of the full Toy Symphony project is scheduled for performance by the BBC Symphony in June.


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