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A High-Tech Operatic Makeover

Tod Machover Gives Opera a New Face

By Bence Olveczky

staff writer

Professor Tod Machovers opera Resurrection is getting its Boston premiere tomorrow at the Shubert Theatre. The Tech caught up with the busy composer at his Media lab office to ask him about his music, MIT, and things in between.

I’m arriving for my interview with Tod Machover just a few minutes early. His assistant, sitting in a glass cubicle in the transparent space that is the fourth floor of the Media Lab, politely tells me that “Tod is in a meeting, but I’ll e-mail him and tell him you’re here.” “You mean he is not in the building?” I naively ask her, afraid that my appointment will not be honored. She points to another glass enclosure, where I make out a group of people who are deep in discussion. Professor Machover may be ten feet away, but we will converse with him via e-mail. This sure is MIT, and Tod Machover fits right in.

Not that you necessarily would think that if you read his resume. An education at the famous Juilliard School of Music in New York with Elliot Carter was followed by a seven year stint at Pierre Boulez’s institute for contemporary music in Paris. Several prominent compositions ensued, among them an opera based on a Philip K. Dick novel called “Valis,” which the New York Times called “the most famous achievement in operatic science fiction.” It may not be a normal trajectory for an MIT professor, but then again, 47 year-old Tod Machover is hardly normal faculty.

But while Machover’s background and interests may seem like an odd match for MIT, he is not unique. The Institute also harbors John Harbison, whose latest opera, “The Great Gatsby”, premiered two years ago at the most revered of opera institutions, The Metropolitan in New York.

Massachusetts Institute of Opera?

So why is it that two of America’s most famous and influential opera composers find themselves here at MIT? Once the e-mail message announcing my arrival gets through to Professor Machover and I’m ushered into his sparingly but carefully decorated corner office, his motives for choosing the Institute become clear. “I never wanted to go to a normal music department,” he says. “The music conservatories tend to be really active music making places, but they are not very intellectual or thoughtful. They are like music factories. And traditional music departments at places like Harvard often have the opposite problem; you feel uncomfortable if you’re actually making music. It’s okay to discuss music and talk about music, but the joy of just writing it and playing it is somehow not enough in many academic environments.”

At MIT, Machover found the perfect match: an intellectual place of learning where creativity is a way of life. “MIT is a place where people make things, where people invent things. The biggest value here is to be in love with something you want to do, and then go and do it. It’s the same process for musicians as it is for scientists, and I think that the culture here is very conducive for creative people, be they artists or scientists.”

Speaking with a contagious, almost childlike enthusiasm, it’s easy to see that Machover is in love with his work; his glowing eyes and burrowing look also suggest an inquisitive thirst for knowledge and inspiration that is quenched here at MIT. “It’s much more stimulating being around smart, interesting, and creative people in lots of fields than just a bunch of other musicians,” he says. “And the diversity on campus means that -- surprisingly -- MIT turns out to be a great place to be a musician, especially a composer. But don’t tell too many people.”

High-tech music

There is, of course, another reason for Machover to choose MIT. His work has always been marked by an effort to incorporate technology into music making and to create a harmonious blend of electronic and acoustic sounds that expand the possibilities and boundaries of music. The know-how on campus has surely been a great asset in realizing his technologically sophisticated projects.

One of Machover’s more involved projects, and one that in many ways epitomizes his approach to music, is his work on Hyperinstruments, the most famous of which is the Hypercello he designed for virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “With Joe Chung, I had started the development of Hyperinstruments at the MIT Media Lab in 1986,” Machover writes in a program note. “Our purpose was to enhance and expand performance virtuosity through technology ... We sought to develop techniques that would allow the performer’s normal playing technique and interpretive skills to shape and control computer extensions to the instrument, thus combining the warmth and ‘personality’ of human performance with the precision and clarity of digital technology. In fact, the whole Hyperinstrument idea is an extension of my general musical philosophy: to convey complex experiences in a simple and direct way.”

By placing physical sensors on the cello, bow, and on Yo-Yo Ma’s wrist and fingers, and by feeding the output of these sensors into a computer, Machover’s Hypercello was able to measure, evaluate, and respond to many different aspects of the cellist’s performance. At times it would electronically transform the sound of the cello, while at other times it would generate accompaniment or create new sounds, always extending the soloist’s capacity to influence the soundscape of his own performance.

Resurrection -- a not-so-odd Tod.

While Machover has made a name for himself as an avant-garde composer who tirelessly pushes the high-tech envelope both in his compositions and in his approach to instrumentation, his latest opera, Resurrection, is highly reminiscent of classical operas from the 19th century. As a New York Times critic who saw the World premiere of Resurrection in Houston two years ago pointed out, “There is nothing odd about this [opera], and that is precisely what is so odd about it.”

So why does Tod Machover, who has entitled his research program “The Future of the Opera” turn to Tolstoy and classical operas for material and inspiration?

“I wanted to write something that would feel right and work right in a traditional opera house, with the large stage and the natural acoustics” says Machover, who wrote the opera for a Mozart-size orchestra with strings, winds, and brass instruments, in addition to three electronic keyboards. “I wanted to do something that would be in my language, but at the same time speak to a traditional opera audience.”

In listening to the pre-release CD of Resurrection, I can make out the influence of Mozart, Mussorgsky, and Prokofiev in the classical sounding score, but it’s still very much an original piece that carries Machover’s admittedly subtle but electronic signature. “The electronics may not hit you in the head” he says, “but there is not a single section in the piece which does not have it. If you take the electronics out, it’s unbelievable how the sound shrinks. In the first act, the electronics are used to augment and reinforce the sonorities, with very little extra music played electronically. But the second act uses a fair amount of electronics to convey a sense of strangeness, and alienation.

The return to more acoustic sounds and classical operatic themes may reflect a change in Machover’s priorities. “Right now, I’m not so interested in art work or human expression that is fixated on technology or science”, he muses. “I’m much more interested in using the resources and tools we have at hand to look at human problems. When I started this opera project more than ten years ago, I wanted to ask whether we who live decent yet complacent lives can make a difference in the world. What does it mean to reach maturity and realize that things are neither all perfect nor all horrible and that our role is to do the best we can to make a difference? I think the way to make the world a better place lies not in grand political gestures but in finding our own calling and then changing the people around us, one-by-one.”

As he talks enthusiastically about the issues he wants to address in his opera, Machover strikes me as a die-hard idealist who, despite all the cynicism around him, believes in the transformative power of art. It’s thus not surprising that he would feel a certain kinship with Leo Tolstoy, one of the great preachers of moral and spiritual betterment.

“I love Tolstoy. He is probably my favorite author,” admits Machover. “I read Resurrection in late high school, and it meant a great deal to me then, but after that I forgot about it until my wife mentioned it as a possible source for an opera. I realized that it had all the qualities I was looking for. It had a story about two different people waking up to the emptiness in their lives and finding a way to reach out to others. They find, in different ways, what it means to make a difference and how to make the world better.”

Resurrection, which was adapted for Machover by another MIT faculty member, Laura Harrington, tells the story of Prince Nekhlyudov, who is called to serve as a juror in a murder trial where one of the accused is the prostitute Maslova. The Prince recognizes Maslova as his aunt’s servant, whom he seduced and impregnated in a lustful moment of his youth. When Maslova is wrongly convicted and sent to Siberia, Prince Nekhlyudov’s reawakened guilt propels him to give up everything and follow her.

It’s a story of the redemption and resurrection of the main characters’ moral and spiritual lives, and Machover has created a score that in many ways match the epic grandeur of Tolstoy’s moral tale. When I ask him to promote Resurrection to The Tech’s readership, he smiles and says, “It’s probably my best piece; it’s filled with melodies and has a story with a dramatic impact. I’d like for people to go for the music and the opera alone, but MIT students will also be able to look down into the orchestra pit and ask some questions about how the electronics works and how it blends in.”

Resurrection is presented by the Boston Lyric Opera and opens tomorrow November 7th. Its showing until the 20th of November. Tickets are normally $31-151, but given the strong MIT connection, MIT faculty and staff can purchase tickets for 50% off the ticket price of select seats with valid ID. Students with valid ID can purchase selected tickets (mostly in the balcony) for $15 at The Shubert Theatre Box Office, 265 Tremont Street, Monday-Saturday 10am-6pm.