Smart instruments

Musician's tools play along with you

Ever since the invention of electric amplification, there’s been tension in the music world — a perpetual stare-down between acoustic and electric, amplified and unplugged, the immediacy of live performance and the perfectibility of the studio recording.

Tod Machover is working on a truce.

Machover’s website describes him as a musician, inventor and educator. He’s a significant composer — his opera “Death and the Powers” has its American preem next month — and he heads the Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group at the MIT Media Lab.

His early musical inventions were interactive music instruments for musicians including Yo-Yo Ma and Prince. His students include the founders of Harmonix, creators of “Rock Band” and Guitar Hero.” Now his team is making “hyperinstruments.”

In a nutshell, hyperinstruments combine the form of a traditional instrument, like a cello or guitar, with smart electronics. The musician plays the instrument as usual, but in addition to making sound, the instrument senses how the musician is playing.

“The instrument wants to be able to attach adjectives to how it’s being played,” said Machover. “Is it calm, is the music building, is a certain thing being emphasized?” Machover said. Then the instrument controls synthesizers to invoke other sounds to go along with the performance.

“Depending on how I’m interpreting the music, it might make up its own harmony and go from being a solo instrument to being an orchestra. So it’s like this model I’ve got of a multi-track recording studio, and I’ve got a whole orchestra, but it’s through one person playing their instrument that I mix and pull these things out.” And these additions aren’t random. The musician can learn how subtle changes in performance deliver different sounds.

“Young musicians get it pretty quickly,” he said. “I think this is the future of instruments.”

The son of a noted piano teacher and a computer graphics pioneer, Machover says he “grew up thinking about the tendency of digital technology to take the performance out of music in some ways.”

He points to the Beatles and Glenn Gould as artists who spent the their late careers working entirely in the studio because they felt they couldn’t make the music they were imagining live onstage. “I’ve been interested for a long time in the best of both worlds, how to get the precision and complexity of digital music with human spontaneity and real performance,” he says.

I sat down with Machover in his office in Boston a while back. He has an unruly shock of curly hair a bit like Gene Wilder’s in “Young Frankenstein” and an infectious enthusiasm for his work. His work area is filled with musicmaking gear (some look more like toys than instruments), as well as robotic set elements for his opera.

Hyperinstruments aren’t strictly an academic project. Machover says major performing groups, including the Kronos Quartet, are interested. So are manufacturers.

Machover recalled a meeting with the head of musical instruments for a Japanese conglom, a man who’d moved in mid-career from overseeing a sporting goods division. The exec lamented that the music space was less healthy than sporting goods. In sporting goods, people both watch tennis or baseball and buy raquets and bats. But few people who listen to music buy instruments.

The exec told Machover he had come in search of a new kind of instrument, one “that measures everything that you’re trying to express through your playing, so it really makes a difference if you touch it this way rather than another way, that wants to measure your feelings. On the other hand, we want the technology to to help fill in, even if you’re Yo-Yo Ma or Prince, help use what you do and get more mileage out of it.””I think instruments of the future will be in this sweet spot that’s not totally manual and not totally automatic,” he says. “Getting that right is a real art.”

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