‘Overstory Overture’ – Tod Machover’s Upcoming Music Magic at Lincoln Center

The innovative composer and M.I.T. Media Director and professor, Tod Machover discusses his creative process.

By Lois Silverstein

Composer and Innovator Tod Machover breathes vitality and brightness out of his very being. Abundance and color spring from his first words. Alert and active, he spoke with me from his farm and studio in Massachusetts. He drove from his state-of-the-art Media Laboratory at M.I.T. in Cambridge, where he is the Director of the Opera of the Future group as well as a professor.

He is in the midst of rehearsal for the upcoming opening of “Overstory Overture,” an opera filled with his innovative and characteristic technological explorations, based on Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Overstory.”

On March 7th, the first section of the opera opens in Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall, starring Joyce DiDonato and the Seong Soloists, an internationally known and highly applauded chamber orchestra that commissioned this work. We cannot help but anticipate a rich, mind-expanding, and emotionally satisfying experience. Machover exudes creative life.

Beginnings: From Cellist to Machine/Human Dialogues

Machover started his musical career as a cellist, playing chamber music and, in high school, rock. All the while he played Bach, for example, he kept hearing new melodies in his head. Since he also loved language and has always loved to read, words and phrases kept emerging as well.

As he began creating songs for solo piano, violin, soprano and choirs, baritone, and youth chorus, he began to delve into creating larger dimensions of sounds and words. Was opera in the wings? Sure enough. Machover widened his explorations, and his musical landscape began to express an innovative dialogue between human beings and machines.

“Ab ovo,” opera appeared, and what an array. In all, he created new textures and palettes of sound. Human beings and machines. That was the key. When we meet Machover in his music, we discover a modern-day Balboa inventing a brand new landscape.

After initial training at Juilliard, between 1973-1978, Machover went on to train with modern composers Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter. He was then invited to be Composer-in-Residence to Pierre Boulez’s new Institute de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique /Musique(IRCAM) in 1978 in Paris. What followed was Machover’s explorations with digital synthesizers and his adventurous scoring of keyboard and percussion compositions.

As he worked, Machover began to develop technology to augment keyboard instruments and percussion and strings, and over time, he aimed toward developing musical instruments for non-professionals. Everyone could be a musician, he thought, and make music; why not? No doubt this was an early step toward his creation of “hyper instruments” – Hyperbow, Hypercello, and Hyperpiano, which he developed later.

A Schoenberg-esque Creative Process

He began to create stage works, including “Valis “(1987), an opera based on Philip K. Dick’s notable science fiction novel, “VALIS” “Media/Medium” (1994) for magicians Penn and Teller; “Resurrection” (1999) based on Tolstoy’s last novel; “Death and the Powers”(2010), an opera that included live electronic and robotics that was developed by M.I.T. Media Lab. He included film and live electronics in “Schoenberg in Hollywood” in 2018, commissioned by the Boston Lyric Opera.

Many prestigious soloists, such as Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Joyce Di Donato, Renée Fleming, and the Kronos Quartet, have commissioned and performed his compositions, among various others.

He has also been awarded numerous prizes and honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the French Cultural Ministry and the German Cultural Ministry, Musical, Musical America’s 2016 Composer of the Year, and many others. The list is extensive.

Being an explorer, Machover said he likes to begin his composition experience by imagining it “in toto,” that is before he makes any sound. “Before” is the operative word here; although he has no hard and fast prescription for his composition process, he likes to enter it in silence and “see” the work from beginning to end.

“Usually,” he said, “melody arises first, but not always. Harmony and rhythm follow. New things begin to occur, then,” and generally, he follows them. In other words, he interacts with what arises.

The whole process remains dynamic and interactive. He creates and then engages in the rising energetic flow. As it continues, which it usually does, it propels even more energy, and out of this, a new landscape emerges with its own distinctive and unmistakable identity.

“I am a bit like Schoenberg,” Machover says. “Familiar motifs and patterns occur, but then I engage with them, and they shift and change, and almost invariably, become new doorways to their own geography.”

He describes the experience as a subtle and nuanced process, intense and immersive, especially as he deepens his engagement with the literature he reads and explores.

As other musicians entered into the work, he said, of course, additional layers began to emerge.

“That I love too,” Machover said. “The pieces grow as they become more distinct and more multi-colored.” Clearly, the whole experience exhilarates him.

Nurtured in the Arts, Fascinated by Invention

Tod Machover was born to gifted parents, Wilma Machover, a notable pianist and music teacher “extraordinaire,” and Carl Machover, a notable and innovative computer scientist. Each of his parents contributed not only their knowledge of their respective arts to their son, but their own open attitudes toward innovation and creation.

Undoubtedly, their support and encouragement helped to further Machover’s own inventiveness. His original “City Symphonies” illustrate this. What are “City Symphonies”? Portraits of notable cities in sound. They are created by people of all ages, with various backgrounds, to create a musical portrait of their city, i.e., Toronto, Detroit, Lucerne, and Edinburgh, among others.

He sets up public forums and workshops and offers people online tools such as smartphones, assorted apps, and more conventional musical resources to help design a soundscape of their city. Which they do. What a remarkable human and social invention.

In almost all his work, Machover fuses one language, poetry or prose, with another sound. In a way, he is like the innovative god, Hephaestus, forging new ideas as he merges the familiar and the new.

When I asked him how he sees the next years in his musical geography, he spoke of how he is drawn to exploring more natural things, what he calls “the soft side of experience.”

Rather than staying riveted to the clear sharp edges of technological experience but not dismissing them at all, he aims to blend them with this other natural dimension. He spoke with thoughtful enthusiasm at the prospect.

I asked him if his mother, classically trained Wilma Machover, who passed away two years ago, would have liked his work. He said that she was, of course, always a great fan while he was growing up, then shyly admitted he believed she would. She was a great fan of innovation, as was his father, Carl, a well-known visionary graphics and computer innovator.

At M.I.T., Machover offers a class on Creativity and aims to help his students cultivate their own confidence and trust in their creative process.

“My Lab is an up-to-date technological quasi-planet, and my home is an 18th-century farmhouse. I live in a blend of many worlds.”

We can look forward to more new, nuanced, and subtle creations through the imaginative adventures of this American musical voyager.


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