CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Picture this: a forest of large, hanging pods covered with little urchin-like nubs of a soft, tactile rubber. One touch by the human hand is measured for velocity, direction, and duration, triggering a cascade of computer-generated percussive rhythms. Picture an easel on which a finger can trace patterns onto a pressure-sensitive translucent material to simultaneously translate touch into melody in a kind of musical finger painting.
Or imagine a wall that responds to the user's every movement and gesture with graphics and music. Or a musical arcade game in which the player "drives" through a piece of music, with a joystick controlling speed and direction, allowing the player to create his or her own musical/graphic soundscape.
Strange new world? You bet. It's all part of composer Tod Machover's epic new "Brain Opera," an interactive participatory event that premiered July 22 and runs through August 3 at New York's Lincoln Center and via the Internet.
Designed as a kind of musical theme park, "Brain Opera" synthesizes the arts, technology, psychology, and science to create a unique, collective experience that musically mirrors the working of the human brain. Machover says, "I hope it demystifies technology in terms of the arts and goes a distance toward saying, 'This stuff is here to stay.' It's not just a novelty. I hope it also breaks a lot of taboos about feeling versus thinking."
Unlike traditional operas, which revolve around a story, "Brain Opera" focuses on an experience - emotional, psychological, real, and on-line - to explore the mysteries of music and the human mind through sensory perception, musical structure, language, memory, thinking, and emotion. Machover believes it is a way "to create a sense of community through a combination of music and new technology."
The core of the project is the set of interactive musical games and activities, each with its own rules of interaction and distinctive musical personalities. Set within a mazelike space in the 65th Street lobby of the Juilliard School, each revolves around different musical elements - such as melody, rhythm, harmony - theoretically illumining what takes place in the mind in relationship to these elements while listening, performing, and/or creating music.
The installations can be explored at will by up to 125 people at a time. After 50 minutes' exploration, the audience proceeds to the adjacent Morse Hall, where the music they created is integrated into a single, 45-minute multimedia performance. Three performers playing gesture instruments (which are electronically enhanced to respond to physical gesture) and using batonlike electronic wands select, modify, and combine the strands of contributed material in real time.
In addition, sensors in the theater's carpet and radar beams at head level measure audience movement and energy level, which also influence the musical buildup and shape of the piece. Machover expects it to sound "somewhere between Cage and Bach," but with a considerably larger palette of musical colors. In addition to vocal sounds supplied by participants in the event, musical materials come from computer-generated sources as well as a wide variety of prerecorded material, including the voices of sopranos Lorraine Hunt, Anne Azema, and Karol Bennett.
Machover believes one of the biggest challenges facing contemporary composers is finding a way to reinvigorate music, to wake audiences up from the current tendency to listen passively. Machover says "Brain Opera" gives audiences the chance to "explore, complete, and maybe totally change what is offered to them."
With eight shows a day, "Brain Opera" is expected to draw some 15,000 on-site participants. Internet users around the world can send in their own materials (sounds, texts, images) for "Brain Opera" performances or sit back and observe as the work unfolds, thereby possibly expanding the audience to thousands more.
Machover's project was developed in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, which he has directed since 1986, and has involved more than 50 collaborators, from software and graphic designers to the technicians who built and run some of the equipment. To pay all the artists involved, $1.5 million was raised. Another million went toward basic development of the underlying technology, and yet another million was credited to donated equipment.
"Brain Opera" is part of Machover's larger mission to help popularize the musical experience, making it accessible without years of conservatory training. "Everyone can't be Beethoven," he admits, "but viewing the arts as something that's only passive isn't working. Traditional instruments are important and wonderful, but I don't think they should be the key to the door for musical enjoyment and participation. If technology can take away some of the technical and theoretical difficulties so people can get their hands on the interesting part more easily, people can really dive into musicmaking."
Prior to this high-profile project, Machover was best known for his pioneering of hyperinstruments, electronically enhanced instruments that feed into a computer during live performance. The computer then analyzes and interprets the material based on a variety of parameters, thereby becoming an active participant in the resulting musical composition. He hopes to make some form of these instruments available to the public, through licensing or installations in public places.
"It's a bit subversive," he adds. "The ethos of technology is to make things easier for people. But if we do this the right way, it might be possible for this to give people a door to a more demanding, stimulating, and deeper experience than they usually have these days. We have a general culture of people not willing to put up with much challenge. My hope is that people come and think, 'I'm capable of more than I thought - It's more fun to be challenged than to be asleep.' "
"Brain Opera" should definitely wake up a few people. "My goal is to make artistic experiences," he says, "things that are moving to an audience, that make you think, open you up, and add something to your life. My biggest dream for this is people walking out of the 'Brain Opera' will think first and foremost what the experience did to them musically, not how the technology worked. If I got 'em in the gut in some way, that's my intention."
*After the premire in New York, 'Brain Opera' is scheduled for stops in Japan, Singapore, Austria, Scotland, Brazil, and Portugal. The Web site is http://brainop.media.mit.edu/