Genius Composition

How professor Tod Machover and a group of MIT scientists are creating the future of music.

By DAVID KUSHNER | Boston Magazine |

THE MIT MEDIA LAB looks as futuristic as you’d expect it to. Its new six-story building near Kendall Square is all glass and metal, like something out of Avatar or Area 51. The World of Tomorrow feel extends inside, where roughly 150 elite graduate students work with a few dozen esteemed faculty and visiting scholars on some of the most cutting-edge technology in the world. On a recent afternoon, a group of students on one floor was tinkering with a robotic ankle. In the lobby, two scruffy guys swatted at a ball on a computerized ping-pong table amid animated fish projected onto the table’s surface. Upstairs, another student "painted" a television screen with virtual images rendered by strokes of a large wooden brush implanted with a digital eye.

Since its founding 25 years ago, the Media Lab’s goal has been to create high-tech inventions that have practical applications, a mission it has achieved with impressive frequency: The lab is responsible for such innovations as MPEG-4 digital audio files as well as the electronic ink in e-readers.

Yet among the fields in which the lab has been most influential is one that may be less obvious: music. And that phenomenon is largely owed to the influence of one man, MIT professor of music and media Tod Machover.

Later this year, in Monaco, Machover will debut an ambitious "opera of the future" he’s composing: Death and the Powers, which tells the story of a dying inventor who uploads his consciousness into a room full of intelligent objects, called The System. Though the opera has the familiar arrangement of strings and woodwinds, Machover and his team at MIT are also developing a host of new technologies specifically for the production – from life-size musical robots to gesture-controlled "disembodied performance" gear.

Such work isn’t as esoteric as it might seem. Machover uses his compositions to develop new ideas and experiment with new technology – innovations that have, over the past 25 years, filtered into everything from hospitals to your living room. And if you want to understand where technology will take the art form in the next decade, you need look only at what Machover and his band of scientists, graduates, gamers, and engineers are up to these days – and how they’re planning to transform the way we consume and develop music in our everyday lives.

THE SON OF A JUILLIARD-trained pianist and a computer-graphics pioneer, Machover first started thinking about technology and music as a kid growing up in the ’60s, when he decided to modify his cello to create the rock music he was hearing in his head. He started by rigging up a homemade amplification system, but soon he was composing with tape recorders and layers of tracks produced by his "electrified" cello.

After earning two degrees at Juilliard and a long residency in Paris, Machover joined MIT, where he launched his Hyperinstruments Group in 1986. At first he conceived of "hyperinstruments" as technological means through which musicians could augment their own performances to further unleash their