Despite Technology, ‘Brain Opera’ Relies on Human Touch


Music, given that all of it but singing is made on instruments, has always been a technological art. And given that it inevitably must reflect the relentless revolutions in technology, the obvious place to glimpse music’s future is at the MIT Media Lab, that darling of the interactive media set.

There, at the Cambridge, Mass., campus, you will find Tod Machover, part mad scientist, part visionary composer, part age-old showman. But right now, at Lincoln Center Festival 96, as well as on the Internet, you will find his latest mad creation--the “Brain Opera.”

The “Brain Opera” is a radical effort to experience opera the way the brain experiences itself. According to Marvin Minsky, the media lab’s artificial-intelligence guru whose notions inspired the idea for the opera and who pops up in it in various ways, the brain works not by centralization but by the interactions of an array of loosely connected mental processes. The way Machover, with the help of more than 50 MIT colleagues, envisioned this is by involving the audience as well as participants who log on to the Web site ( in the creation of the actual sounds heard in the opera.


At the Juilliard Theater, an audience of 125 (performances are on the hour seven times daily through next Saturday and are free) first spends 45 minutes in a lobby area called the Mind Forest, where newly invented electronic instruments are explored. We tap rubbery protrusions (shaped like noses and sea urchins) that light up and make peculiar noises (voice sounds and electronic percussion sounds among them). There is an instrument like a video game, with booth and steering wheel, in which we drive through a cartoon musical landscape. We walk up to one of the “singing and speaking trees,” where Minsky asks questions and we answer into a microphone. Sensors in a “gesture wall” respond musically to our body movements.

Then it’s on to the “Brain Opera” performance itself. Here three performers play more sophisticated versions of similar instruments, which are hooked up to computers containing Machover’s music along with sounds generated by the audience in the Mind Forest and those heard during a moment spent peering into the Internet. Large video screens project brain imagery amid fancy graphics.

The end result is an opera full of wonderful music, but the wonderful music is all Machover’s. That’s not to say that those of us merrily tapping the sea urchins and noses, pushing our fingers on video screens, wisecracking to Minsky and waving our arms about like closet conductors weren’t making our own beautiful music. But we were the background, a nice din.

The score that Machover created, however, crackles, quite literally, with electricity. It incorporates many prerecorded musics. Bach’s “Musical Offering” runs through it in gorgeous, ghostlike shards. There are allusions to Bob Dylan and to dance music. In a central section, the voice of the stunning mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt is heard in wild flights of computerized fancy.

The work’s true theatricality is in the performances, where the three performers--drawn from the pool of assistants--wave their hands around sensors effecting the prerecorded music, causing it to surge in various ways, shaping dynamics, bringing out different layers.

Machover has done something similar with conventional instruments as well, making them into what he calls hyperinstruments. Here the instrument is played traditionally, but sensors capture the body motion of the performer and transmit into a sound-altering computer program that changes just about everything, from the instrument’s dynamics to its timbre.

In conjunction with the “Brain Opera,” Lincoln Center presented the first opportunity to hear Machover’s three works for “hyperstrings” together as a trilogy in Alice Tully Hall. “Begin Again Again” for hypercello solo, “Song of Penance” for hyperviola, computer voice and chamber orchestra (which was commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in 1992) and “Forever and Ever” for hyperviolin and chamber orchestra are meant to vaguely follow the poetic concept of the three volumes of “The Divine Comedy.” They explore loss and gain, and, in particular, what is lost and gained by technology.

Interestingly, as the three works progress and the technology in each (they were written between 1991 and 1993) gets more advanced, it also becomes less apparent. In the hyperviolin concerto, even the wires are gone and the focus returns to the captivating and complex virtuosic writing for the traditional instruments.

Ultimately, then, what the technology does best is make the extraordinary aspects of these acoustical instruments and the virtuosos who master them a little more prominent. A perfect example of that came at the beginning of the hypercello solo, where the cellist, Matt Haimovitz, broke an A string. The pop was more dramatic than any computer sound, and the bewildered look on the technicians faces--they had any kind of wire you could ever need but didn’t know where to find a cello string--reinforced the sheer power of the acoustical world.

Machover’s music is interesting and exciting because he is that kind of composer, not because the technology is interesting and exciting (sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t). The “Hyperstring Trilogy” was well performed--the other soloists were Paul Silverthorne on the hyperviola and Ani Kavafian on the hyperviolin; the Eos Ensemble was conducted by Jonathan Sheffer--but if it hadn’t been, the computer wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about it. And if Machover didn’t have a feel for string writing, the computer would have been no use for that either.