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Toying with the Limits of Music

Tod Machover’s Cacophonous ‘Toy Symphony’ Receives U.S. Premiere

By Jonathan Wang

Tod Machover’s Toy Symphony

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, with PALS Children Chorus and the Children of Boston

Gil Rose, conductor

Cora Venus Lunny, hyperviolin

Kresge Auditorium

April 26, 7:30 p.m.

While it certainly isn’t Beethoven, Toy Symphony and Professor Tod Machover’s inventions make instrumental and electronic music accessible to children at an early age. It is both a piece and a presentation. Machover’s Toy Symphony for Orchestra, Hyperviolin, Children’s Chorus, and Music Toys is a work conceived to display the instruments Machover has created. According to the program notes, Toy Symphony is in a broader sense “a creative project for children, orchestra, and new expressive technologies for beginners and virtuosi.”

Machover introduced three new instruments in Saturday’s performance, along with a software package for composition. The new instruments, however, were unimpressive. It was unclear how much of the music was produced by the instruments and how much was preprogrammed into the fleet of computers sitting upstage. Machover’s beatbugs -- handheld percussive instruments -- as well as his music shapers -- pliable balls -- seemed to be little more than an intuitive interface to a traditional electronic synthesizer.

Unfortunately, Machover’s descriptions of these instruments are highly vague and offer no clue as to how they actually work. Equally underwhelming was the hyperviolin. While it does incorporate a number of sensors in the bow in an effort to enhance the violinist’s expressive capabilities, in performance it seemed to be little more than a standard electric violin passed through an effects box. Perhaps Machover would be interested in a “hyperguitar” of the type made by Fender and used by Joe Perry of Aerosmith.

However, Machover’s Hyperscore composition package is a compelling, innovative tool to introduce children to composition. The software allows users to create various motives by drawing an intuitive set of pitches and lengths, and then create a full composition by drawing lines representing repetition and modulation of those motives. The software is also able to create pleasing harmonies and adjust the user-inputed modulation to conform to the rules of composition.

At one point in the evening, works created in Hyperscore by local children and transcribed for string orchestra demonstrated the latitude of expression capable. However, Hyperscore achieves its usability by forcing the composer to conform to rules. It won’t make a Beethoven out of seven-year-old Johnny, but it’s not meant to. It will let Johnny create a pleasing composition by experimenting and playing with music and receiving instant feedback on his work. Hyperscore doesn’t require one to understand music theory to create music. In this respect, it goes to show that a million monkeys at a million typewriters could produce literature, as long as the they were also armed with spelling and grammar checkers.

As for the concert itself, the pieces demonstrated that advanced technology is no substitute for compositional talent and vision. The professionally composed pieces, Machover’s Sparkler, Jean-Pascal Beintus’ Nature Suite, Gil Weinberg’s Nerve, and Machover’s Toy Symphony demonstrated effective and pleasing composition. Beintus’ Nature Suite, in particular, was an excellent programmatic piece that evoked clear images of the seasons it aimed to represent. Gestures, the product of twelve-year-old Natasha Sinha and Hugo Solis G, was less successful. It was certainly experimental, featuring a double bass and music shapers on stage, with other instruments scattered throughout the house, but failed to present any musical idea other than being an array of novel sounds. At one point, the trumpetist was asked to play his mouthpiece only, after which he began chuckling to himself.

Toy Symphony, the namesake of the project and the flagship work of the evening, most visibly displayed the shortcomings of Machover’s music toys. Cora Venus Lunny demonstrated her competence as a soloist on the hyperviolin. Tellingly, though, the work degenerated into a cacophony of sound as soon as the children on stage picked up the music toys. Once the music toys were put down, recognizable melody and harmony returned. Perhaps the child musicians in Toy Symphony were allowed more latitude in their use of the music toys than in the previous works; then, removing the strict control of the “computer section” resulted in the immediate loss of any semblance of musical unity.

Machover’s effort to involve children in music is interesting, but in the end he has created items that belong in Toys ’R Us, not Symphony Hall. The novel approaches of Toy Symphony will at best excite children’s interest in music, but are not by themselves viable instruments or compositional tools.