Sound of Mind
Tod Machover's BrainOpera.
Professional music-making works along the principle best defined by Chevy Chase when he opened Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" with the portentous phrase, "Good evening. I'm Chevy Chase. And you're not." Whether they play rock or country, classical music or jazz, performers are engaged in a conversation with one another, and with their predecessors. The rest of us are listening in, although there have always been some who don't like feeling forced into silence. Poet Adrienne Rich, for example, called Beethoven's Ninth "music of the entirely/ isolated soul/ yelling at Joy from the tunnel of the ego/ music without the ghost/ of another person in it."
Tod Machover, a composer based at MIT's Media Lab, thinks computers will bring the isolation of the musical soul to an end. In this he is partly influenced by the Media Lab, which champions the idea that a seamless global web of information will soon blur the line between reader and writer, performer and listener. But Machover also likes to quote late pianist Glenn Gould, who said that the "best of all possible worlds" is one in which "art would be unnecessary. ... The audience would be the artist and their life would be art."
Machover's Brain Opera is a performance-cum-interactive stunt. Roughly an hour long, it was presented seven times a day over the course of several days at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York (it closed Aug. 3). In it, Machover weds Gould's Whitmanesque vision to John Cage's Zen-inspired idea that music is not sounds chosen by a composer, but a quality of awareness about what you're hearing. The vehicle for all this is the expensive, complicated, and most un-Zen-like apparatus of computerized electronic music. Brain Opera supplies members of its audience with a variety of strange-looking digital instruments and asks that they play around with them. We not only get to explore a cool new technology; we get to collaborate with the composer. We move toward being the artist, our lives, the art. In theory, anyway.
B > rain Opera begins in the Julliard School lobby, which has been transformed into a thicket of plastics molded into shapes suggestive of fruits or plants, or maybe cells. We mill around in the dark among the machines, some of which emit fanfares, drumrolls, or gusts of melody, so that between the bumbling and waiting-to-try and noise, we feel much as we might in a video arcade. The games, though, are more interesting.
The "Gesture Wall," for instance, puts a little zip of electricity through you, which makes you intelligible to some sensors in front of you, which means you can "play" snippets of music and sound by gesticulating. (My fillings vibrated a little; though that could have been caused by the ambient noise.) There are also dirigible-shaped pods about the size of beach balls that, depending on how hard you hit the nubby pads that stick out of them, cause nearby speakers to spit out percussive clicks and bops. Another device is called "The Speaking Tree"; it engages you in conversation about music. You can have any type of discussion you want, provided it's the one Machover expected. ("What is your favorite piece of music?" asks the Tree. "I don't know," say you. "When you hear it, what do you feel?" asks the Tree.)
Machover wanted the experience to feel like "walking into somebody's brain while a piece of music is being created," because, as the name suggests, Brain Opera is about the nature of mind. It is based on the theories of Marvin Minsky, an artificial intelligence expert at MIT who holds that consciousness is built up of loosely connected separate processes. What I think of as "me," says Minsky, is actually a pattern that emerges as a lot of components of my brain go about their business of seeing or hearing or eating or whatever it is they do----much the way a traffic pattern emerges out of the actions of a lot of drivers, or an opera performance out of the actions of musicians, singers, a conductor, and a stage manager. Brain Opera both presents and enacts Minsky's theories: The music emerges in part out of our noodling around with the gizmos right before we go in to hear it.
After a half hour or so in the lobby, we're led into the recital hall, where Machover appears and explains that "some 60 percent of the piece is in place before, and 40 percent will be created at this performance." He and two colleagues take their seats; Machover's is inside a more professional version of the "Gesture Wall." He ignites Brain Opera with a sequence of chopping hand motions and vigorous leanings in his chair (picture the Enterprise under attack); this brings forth a sonic crash from the computer. We hear a lot of musical quotations--from Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to Leonard Bernstein's Candide to Bob Dylan and Duke Ellington--that bounce around a theme from the "Ricercare" of Bach's Musical Offering. Images that would work well on album covers fly by on big screens --the moon, a baby, the great red spot of Jupiter. We hear a comment or two from the Speaking Trees ("I think it has to do with the electrons in the air"; "music changes your mood very definitely"). The words of the libretto zip past on the screens. Prerecorded voices sing it to New Age melodies. A red square appears, signifying, apparently, that people logged on to the Brain Opera Web page who are participating in the piece on "virtual instruments" are now being sampled and folded into the work.
I >t is all quite lively, and far from dull. But by the end I feel a little glazed and tired, much as I might feel after too much time spent on the Web or reading somebody's hypertextual "novel." There's the same sense of scope and technical mastery, and absence at the core. I missed the individual voice, the unique and compelling emotional timbre, of the sort that characterizes less interactive music--including Machover's own, when he's not trying to bring the whole world into it. Also performed at the festival, for example, were his works for "hyperinstruments," electronic versions of a cello, viola, and violin, which he invented himself. Each of these compositions suggested the powerful currents of one soul's anguish, jauntiness, fragile serenity. But Brain Opera is swamped by the sound of Whatever, of Nothing in Particular.
Giving up his musical individuality, it turns out, has not paid Machover back with a glimpse of Gould's perfect world. From the moment we are guided into the play arcade, each alone, each face to face with technology designed and controlled by MIT, we are maneuvered along paths laid down for us. We are no more collaborating than a lab mouse collaborates with a medical researcher. Brain Opera is an opera, and we are not.
David Berreby, author of Us and Them: The Science of Identity, has been a Slate contributor since 1996.