Beatbugs and hyperinstruments – A new Toy Symphony

Written by: Ying Chang

Tod Machover is full of intellectual charm and artistic conviction. He even has authentically Beethovenian (or ’mad professor’) hair and Schubertian spectacles. In the offices of his publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, he speaks passionately and volubly about his latest project.

Toy Symphony, already performed in Berlin and Dublin, has its UK premiere in Glasgow on June 2.It is a collaboration between professional orchestral players, an international soloist and … schoolchildren, and is intended to explore new relations between trained and untrained performers, adults and children, music-makers and audience. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under Gerhard Markson, and Joshua Bell will be the trained protagonists.

Toy Symphony may be seen as the current culmination – or present resting point – of a logical musical journey. Tod’s father was a pioneer in computer graphics, his mother a pianist and music educator; Tod himself, currently a Professor at the MIT Media Lab, is an amalgam of their talents. He confesses to apprehension when he first ventured into music-education projects “because Mom did them so well”. In the ’seventies, he invented a number of so-called “Piper” instruments, which utilised the abilities of those who already had instrumental skills, and was an attempt to counter “the tendency of technology to retreat into the studio”. The tendency, in other words, for the prevalence of digital and reproductive perfection to stifle originality, creativity and even musical activity itself.

In the ’eighties, Tod took this a stage further with his Brain Opera, now permanently located in Vienna, a musical installation full of new instruments whose defining characteristic was that they needed “no previous musical skill”. They might, for example, turn body movements into sound. Audiences can therefore listen to performances of Brain Opera, part of which was pre-composed, and part of which they had themselves created during their visit. To the surprise of Tod and his collaborators, those who responded most positively were the oldest and the youngest – those with least pre-conceptions or inhibitions.

Tod was then drawn into the production of musical ’toys’ that had a serious creative dimension and into considering issues about how children might deal with sound. He has found it becoming a larger element of his work than originally envisaged, perhaps with the extra incentive that he has had to consider the musical education of his own children. The latest results – ’Beatbugs’, hyperinstruments and even the “Hyperscore” software (where an adult or child operator draws and the computer produces a musical transformation of the lines) were recently displayed on “Blue Peter”.

Tod did not need to spell out the serious intellectual agenda behind his project. His Toy Symphony is the shop window for a sustained attempt to fight the isolation of high culture and to enlist technology as an ally, not an enemy, of musical enlightenment. Tod’s other work (Schoenberg in Hollywood, for example) has already engaged with this attempt to break the dichotomy of the exalted and popular; with Toy Symphony he is approaching the problem from the ground up – from how children apprehend and produce sounds: “I also think professionals have a lot to learn from children.”

How has this project fared on the ground? “Well, good and bad surprises. The worst surprise was how resistant the classical music world was”. Toy Symphony has nevertheless found sympathetic orchestras – its previous performances have been by the National SO of Ireland and, under Kent Nagano, the DSO of Berlin. “But the toy companies came running,” even when it was made clear that the music was contemporary classical, not pop. And it has been popular with the children themselves. “Kids are so thirsty for creative activities that treat them like real people”. Even Tod admits, though, that only time will tell whether this approach will catch the popular imagination.

When we met, Tod was in transit for a conference on music and technology in Dublin, where MIT have a new offshoot (not, he emphasises, “a clone”) of their Media Lab. The original remit was to develop any innovative use of technology – not just in the arts but robotics and personal medical technology such as self-diagnostic instruments. The new one’s directions are still deliberately unclear but are under the umbrella of ’Sixth Senses’. I wish Tod Machover good luck especially if he is as successful with his imaginative solutions as he has been as clear and perceptive in defining the problems they address.

Photograph of Tod Machover © Webb Chappell 1999

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