Can orchestras and technology have a happy marriage? Tod Machover says yes.

Interview by Melinda Whiting


Getting to Know You

Last fall, the American Composers Orchestra kicked off its 25th anniversary season with a brave--some might say quixotic--venture: a conference on technology and the orchestra. Orchestra Tech, as it came to be called, offered a series of discussions among composers who aim to extend the assets of the conventional orchestra with electronic enhancements. Their points were illustrated in several concerts for small ensembles, but the culminating event featured the full complement of the ACO in a Carnegie Hall concert demonstrating a fascinating variety of approaches to the marriage of electronic and acoustic sounds, from Edgard Varèse to Morton Subotnick to Tristan Murail.

Orchestra Tech was co-directed by ACO Artistic Director Robert Beaser, Executive Director Michael Geller, and composer Tod Machover, whose Sparkler was premiered in the conference's final concert as part of his Music Alive residency sponsored by the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet The Composer. A few days later, I spoke with Machover--who is also Professor of Media and Music at the Media Lab of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology-- about the challenges of writing for electronics and orchestra together.

Melinda Whiting: You said, during the Orchestra Tech conference, that "technology is not so interesting itself as a subject for musical exploration." What drives you to employ technology in your music, if the sound of electronics is not all that appealing?

Tod Machover: There was kind of a first excitement about electronics in the 1950s, and the development of the computer in the '70s, and the invention of commercial synthesizers in the '80s and '90s. In that period, it was exciting to think of technology as its own subject.

Now, we're in a period of the maturity of technology. There's more technology out there than we know what to do with; there are fantastic possibilities. But what's important is the human and artistic impact of the work we make. Technology has an incredible contribution to make, but that contribution is at its most powerful when the technology serves a larger aim. To me, that's the sign of maturity.

MW: What can technology add to our experience of music?

TM: Among other things, it has the ability to get music to a larger public, and to get people actively involved in musical experiences again--which should be done in such a way that the music and the human experience are front and center, and not simply the technology. I'm always more interested in music--or in any art-- that starts from what I would call "first principles": from an observation of human beings and life and important issues, rather than from commenting on other music. This applies to technology as well.

MW: With that in mind, what can technology add to an orchestra's native sound, or constellation of sounds?

TM: There are a few really specific things. They may even sound banal, but they're important.

I think in terms of range and clarity, and of what I would call "punch." There are extensions of sonorities that people have become used to--through amplified music and pop music--that orchestral, unamplified instruments in particular are not good at producing. Here's an obvious one: I've grown up expecting a very clear, extremely strong and supportive bass line--with very clear pitch and the ability to move with the kind of flexibility that you hear in Bach--supporting a small ensemble.

MW: And that's a sonority from rock music.

TM: Yes. It's just very hard, with low brass instruments and double basses, to get that punch and clarity in the bass. It's also hard to get very high sounds that are soft--because all acoustic instruments get louder as they play higher--or that have very clear pitch. And it's very hard to play fast in the high register. Acoustic instruments are limited by their physics and by the materials that they're made with.

I often imagine textures including sounds and instrumental timbres that lie in between the existing instruments, or that morph between the existing instruments. I imagine both a kind of an ocean of sonority--where the individual instruments find their place, but it's larger and more encompassing than the existing instruments--and also a more detailed sound, that can be like a microscope looking into the sound of a cello and allowing us to hear the components that make up the sound of the individual instrument.

These are all sonorities suggested by studio technology--by multi-track recording, where sounds are layered in a very careful way. They have been suggested by certain kinds of pop music, but have never been fully exploited. The combination of technology and electronics with the wonderful palette of the existing orchestra and the ability of players leads to something really new--and not just new sounds, but new kinds of structures.

There's also a role for technology to augment what individual players can do. My own sense is that a new kind of concerto grosso form may exist, where you might have not just one but several instruments that have an extended virtuosity role.

MW: So you're really talking about evolved instruments like your hypercello or hyperviolin that are controlled more directly by the performer, rather than an external force processing the sound that a conventional instrument makes.

TM: That's an option. There's a role for processing instruments, but I find the result to be fairly primitive. One of the great things about performed music is that you have musicians with great skill, who have a great desire to express something. You want these people to be able to control what's being expressed, and you want everything that's in their inner being, expressed through the instrument, to come out in the final result.

When you just put a microphone in front of somebody, take their sound, and then turn it into something else, the machine that processes the sound doesn't really have very much information. It's kind of like pouring music into a Cuisinart, or a juicer, say. The juicer doesn't know anything about the fruit that you're sticking in it. You just turns on its motor and juice comes out the other end.

What computers really do best is to respond to what a human being wants to do. You don't want the computer to replace people. You don't want the computer to be a kind of glorified Cuisinart. You want the computer to be sensitive to what a person is trying to do, through their instrument or through their voice or whatever--and then, to be a slave to what the person is trying to express.

MW: Most of the electronically based music that I've heard has been either fully electronic, or involves enhancing the sound of relatively few acoustic instruments. I suppose that's in the interest of achieving clarity; it seems so difficult to combine computerized or amplified sound successfully with this huge 100-piece ensemble called an orchestra.

TM: That's exactly the issue that needs to be addressed now. My own feeling is, not only is it possible to take the full orchestra and add some dimensions and possibilities to it--not "make it better"--but I think that it's one of the most exciting areas where technology should go. I also think it's one of the most exciting areas where orchestras should go.

It's not the same as thinking about a chamber ensemble or a rock band-sized group, and adding a few extra instruments. Orchestras are different because you have a much larger sense of ensemble. Of course solos within the orchestra are extremely important, and that's part of a traditional idea of different lines coming to the fore. But the really great thing about orchestras is that there's also a tradition of blending large amounts of instruments so you have a unique relationship between the form of a piece and the sound of a piece--the way melody and harmony and timbre all blend.

This is a tradition that really only has evolved fairly recently. You find it, in some ways, in

Beethoven. Certainly in Wagner. But especially in the 20th century, there's a language of orchestral expression that's not just a larger version of chamber music: Think of Stravinsky's Le Sacre, and Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 16), and Debussy and Bartók and Varèse and Boulez, for that matter. This is the area where a new marriage can be made, that could really extend the form. And since an orchestra can make such a refined, large sound on its own, it's probably the only acoustic ensemble that's capable of mixing and contrasting and working with electronics, without having to be amplified. I believe in this blend that doesn't have to sound electric.

MW: That brings me to the next topic: the challenges that the composer faces in successfully combining these elements; and those that the conventional orchestra, both administratively and artistically, faces in trying to carry out the composer's intentions. Just to start with: the resonant acoustics of a concert hall versus the ideal environment for electronics, which tends to be an acoustically "dead" studio.

TM: If you want to work with an orchestra, the right thing to do is to accept the acoustics of traditional halls. You have to accept the sound and the structure of an orchestra, accept what orchestra players excel at, and then design a way of integrating technology into that structure, to everybody's advantage. Even though there always can be special cases.

MW: How do you convince an orchestra to take a leap into this electronically enhanced world? Not just one new piece every few years, but really exploring the possibilities seriously?

TM: There's really no magic. Its up to us composers to make a convincing case, both by speaking and also through the example of our music, that this is worth investing effort and time in. Just as Boulez, for instance, has spent a lot of his career standing up for a certain way of exploring. It takes people just keeping at it, and I'm willing to do that. It also takes the courage of a small number of people in the orchestral world, rather than everybody at once deciding that this is the thing to do.

I feel that orchestral music can evolve in a wonderful way and needs these new resources. It's one way of connecting orchestras to a younger public, and to future possibilities. I'm intending to invest a lot of my time into the orchestral world now. And over this coming five to ten years--assuming that the world situation is somewhat stable, which none of us can really take for granted anymore--I believe that the orchestra field is going to be ready for this, and that some of these developments are inevitable.