Genius Composition

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

expressiveness. As his modifications to acoustic instruments (violins, bows, pianos) grew more complex, he began composing his own operas as a kind of workshop for his innovations. His first production, 1987′s VALIS, based on a novel by science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, ran vocals through a synthesizer to create otherworldly effects. When the show debuted at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, it seemed more suited for fans of Kraftwerk than opera. "It was a scandal," Machover recalls with a smile. "Half the audience would stand up and yell, and half would stand up and throw things. They got really angry. To them this was too populist."

But to truly be populist, Machover realized, he needed hyper-instruments that put the power of expressiveness not only in the hands of virtuosos, but also in the hands of nonmusicians. So he composed a mini opera for magicians Penn & Teller using a so-called sensor chair that lets the sitter create music by waving one’s hands through fields of charged particles. He built the "Brain Opera," now permanently installed at the Haus der Musik in Vienna, which offers a physical environment built from a collection of hyperinstruments. As people pass through the space, they create music by waving their hands in front of a wall or turning a steering wheel. He also created Toy Symphony, an educational project that, among other things, allows toddlers to "conduct" music by squeezing soft play toys. Yet another Machover innovation was Hyperscore, a composition program that creates music based on how the user draws images on a computer. Adam Boulanger, a Ph.D. student of Machover’s, has been using Hyperscore at Tewksbury State Hospital to enable patients with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, schizophrenia, and other conditions to make music. "The theme of everything we do here is accessibility," Boulanger says. "We’re showing that anyone can compose or perform significant music if they have the right tool."

Despite his innovations, Machover’s most lasting influence may be in the philosophy he passed on to two of his most accomplished former students: Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy. The pair met in the early ’90s while they were completing degrees at MIT through the Media Lab. There, they both ascribed to Machover’s gospel – and soon began looking for ways they, too, could bring musicianship to ordinary people. And what better means to engage a new generation, they figured, than with video games? In 1995 they formed their company, Harmonix, which stumbled for years before hitting it big with a series of interactive music-game franchises: Karaoke Revolution, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band. Today Harmonix is credited with creating a pop-culture phenomenon, and an industry with more than $2 billion in revenue. Still, if you ask Rigopulos and Egozy about the secret behind their success, they don’t hesitate to point back to their alma mater. "It gave us this brash, almost irresponsible sense of adventure to try something that had never been done before," says Egozy. "We didn’t even think about being afraid of failure."