Tod Machover's "Brain Opera"

by Barry Drogin

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As to the request for "feedback/reviews" of Tod Machover's "The Brain Opera":

1. I hope the c-opera list will be more about exchanging ideas, networking and such. We will be shooting ourselves in the collective foot if we sit around in judgement of each other's work.

2. I believe in the validity of all aesthetic experience.

3. "The Brain Opera" was definitely provocative, as evidenced by the many walk-outs throughout, the questions posed afterwards, and the private discussion of exiting audience members. You have to respect that.

4. No matter what I say, I encourage all who are curious to experience this work for him/herself. I gave up reviewing years ago because I got disgusted by how people who had never seen works would sit around at parties passing judgement on what they themselves had not seen/heard.

5. You can read about the plot, synopsis, instruments and program notes yourself at --- you don't need me for that.

6. I attended "The Brain Opera" twice, on successive nights. I wasn't very impressed the first night, which I attended alone; the second night I went with my wife and with a friend who is an NYU professor and President of IPG, the NYU Interactive Performance Group. I enjoyed the performance portion more the second time, for reasons I will explain below.

"The Brain Opera" is in two parts. First, the audience is led into a darkened room in which are collected several "instruments". The centerpiece is the "Rhythm Tree", which consists of 6 potato-sack sized bags covered with fist-sized rubber bumps. When you punch a bump, a sound comes from a nearby speaker. This is the only instrument that can be learned and played in a conventional sense, since the sounds from each bump stay fixed. The hope was that a jam session would result. It never materialized. The general cacophany of the room, plus the fact that there did not appear to be many loud bass tones (so that someone could have at least established a group beat), played against such action. Instead, people independently interacted with this fancy-looking "percussion kit" until they bored of it and moved on.

There were so-called "singing trees" and "talking trees". In the talking trees, a Max Headroom-ish LCD image of Marvin Minsky, head of AI at MIT, asked supposedly provocative thought questions, like, "How do you hear music differently on second hearing?", or some such. You were given a few seconds to drop your bon mot replies (into a microphone). You were asked to sing a single tone of your choice into the singing trees. A computer responded with a wall of sound that reacted to various qualities of your voice, while a short two-second video clip played forward and reverse. Both my friend and I enjoyed this the most.

The "Gesture Walls" were like theremins, with people waving their hands to produce responding compositional gestures from a computer. At second try I figured out that it was really just four independent channels which increased in intensity depending upon whether an object (your hand) was closest to which corner of a square. You could have done the same thing with four fingers on four slider bars.

The "Melody Easel" was a video touch screen that left Etch-A-Sketch like persistent marks superimposed on a video of someone swimming, or of bubbles, while a pre-recorded (or sampled) sequence played out as you drew.

Finally, "Harmonic Driving" devices were a video arcade representation of a quarter note careening down a water chute. If you pushed the steering wheel forward, percussion sounds dominated; if you pulled it back, choral tones came to the fore. If you hit the wall of the chute, or ran into an obstacle, crackly sounds resulted. Every so often there were blue and orange forks in the road --- choosing a path supposedly had an effect on the style of music that would ensue. Most people were fooled into thinking that they had to direct the note down the swerving chute, so they "drove" the machine, letting it tell the driver what to do.

The over-all impression was that of a room full of noisemakers (and I don't use the word "noise" in a derogatory way) that most adults quickly tired of. One of the problems was, how to let others hear what you were doing, and yet create a personal sonic environment (there were lots of headphones). There was also a goal to make it so that anyone could create music, but what this really meant was that people hardly had any idea of how to control or truly influence the sound.

Computers generating the compositional materials is definitely old-hat --- I studied with Laurie Spiegel, who did this stuff back in the 70's. And making it so that anyone could "create" music --- Laurie worked on an Apple program in the 80's that gave people a predictable interface that really could be played. So you can see why I was not impressed --- I've seen it before.

However, my second impressions color this. In the context of opera, and what was to follow, the audience was being exposed to sights and sounds that would recur in the second part. This addresses a fundamental problem with contemporary electronic music --- how to get an audience of some size to sit around and listen to a tape (or a "live computer-generated score", for that matter). For some audience members, and remember that tickets were free, listening to anything electronic was distasteful --- thus the many walk-outs. (Remember also, this was in Lincoln Center, where the New York Philharmonic and its conservative minions reign supreme). For others, they were tricked into sitting through a 35-minute pre-recorded piece with some frame of reference to hold onto.

The second part of "The Brain Opera" was in a formal, small theatre, with three large video screens (basically a scrim), a rhythm tree and a variation on the gesture wall (using a chair so that the performer did not need to stand). There was also a baton that a third performer used. However, the instruments were largely irrelevant to the performance, which was really the playing of a pre-recorded audio and visual piece by Tod Machover. Tod wrote the music, and Sharon Daniel, a visual artist, "mickey-moused" (that's a film term) a series of visual images to his piece. During the playing of this, three electrical engineering and computer science MIT students waved their hands in the air for 35 minutes, adding a small gloss to the goings-on. I was reminded of the late Jerry Hunt, who performed elaborate rituals on-stage while a computer generator largely ignored him. These students had a stronger influence on the sound than Jerry did, as did two people at a mixer in the rear of the room. But so what? The visual mickey-mousing reinforced Tod's contribution, which, as one audience member indelicately put it, was "canned." The performers claimed that 60 percent of the music was repeated, but I know from two visits that that statistic is more like 85 to 90 percent.

By sitting at the rear of the theatre and ignoring the video screen and waving students, I was able to hear the piece better the second time. Reading the program notes helped, too. Of the three movements, the first was a reworking, similar to Berio's "Sinfonia" or, more so, Foss's "Baroque Variations", of Bach's Ricercare from "Musical Offering." A short section also brought in the comments of audience members to the afore-mentioned "talking tree." For the second movement, the recorded voices of Lorraine Hunt, Karol Bennett, Chris Nomura and Anne Azema were manipulated spatially and otherwise as they sang a setting of some words of Mr. Minsky. (This was introduced by a section of just Lorraine Hunt singing scales on "ah"). In the third movement, the performers on stage were largely given more control, as well as piped in contributions from Internet users "playing" a program that allowed several parameters to be selected and adjusted as the computer composed the music. (Prior to my seeing the second performance, my friend had downloaded this program off the net and we saw how it worked. We couldn't connect to the audio/video live stream because "Streamworks" was unavailable for access). I was impressed by the clarity of the often dense mix --- digital technology has sure gotten rid of the tape "generation" problem.

The very end was telling. The baton bearer picked up a simple wood block and struck it once. Suddenly, after 35 minutes of processed, speakered, mediated sound, a distinctive, recognizable, natural sound entered the world, and it was both startling and moving. But, not to be outdone, the sound was processed and instantly aurally mixed with a computer generated reverb that, repeating the sound on seven or eight pitches, had the last word.

It was amazing that, given the level of technology used, a visual roadmap of the piece was not available on screen. Art galleries are not averse to putting curator program notes on the walls near the art, and to splitting an exhibit into rooms to illustrate something. It would have been so useful to be led through the piece, told what was being played, maybe seen snippets of score. When the Internet players arrived, a performer actually had to announce it to the audience. For such a media-savvy, interactive piece, there was no web access, no video info touch screen --- museums and libraries are way ahead of us.

Is this the kind of description you want?

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A Musical Contrarian 1999-2007

Last Updated: August 4, 2007