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TED2008: Tod Machover, and finding yourself through music

Tod Machover of MIT’s Media Lab has been pushing the boundaries of music for years. Now he’s pushing the boundaries of who can perform music and how.

Machover tells us that we benefit more from making music than from just listening to it. “Letting your baby listen to Mozart doesn’t help.” The goal is “active music” – getting everyone involved in the middle of musical experience.

Early experiments led Machover to build “hyperinstruments”, a cello that allowed Yoyo Ma to control a whole orchestra based on his gestures. But his deeper interests are in creating instruments that could work for anyone. One of the results of his research is Guitar Hero, which came out of his work on The Brain Opera, a project designed to let a group of people perform an opera together. “If you make the right interface, people are excited about being part of a piece of music.”

A new major work that Machover is working on is called “Death and the Powers” – it will be performed almost entirely by robots – the main theme is of a man who’s decided to survive his death by preserving himself as a lirbary of books. The entire stage will become the main character – the chandelier is a huge robotic instrument made of plucked and strummed piano strings. There’s a greek chorus of robots on stage, and motorized bookshelves that symbolize the main character. It will premiere in Monaco in 2009.

Machover tells us that “music is transformative – it can change your life more than almost anything.” Some of his new work focuses on bringing music to children through a project called Toy Symphony. These new instruments include products like “beat bugs”, which allow people to pass rhythyms to one another. They can compose using “Hyperscore”, an application that lets anyone use lines and colors to make sophisticated music… and which can export this music into musical notation.

Now he’s focused on music, mind and health. He notes that “music is the last thing Altzheimers patients lose.” He now works with patients in the Tewksbury hospital, and has discovered that “everyone wants to work on musical activities. It brings the hospital together as a musical community.” He’s trying to create “personal instruments” that allow people who wouldn’t normally be able to perform to make music and express themselves, because “music shows who you really are.”

We meet Dan Ellsey, a 34-year old patient at Tewksbery Hospital who is severely disabled by cerebral palsy. With the help of Hyperscore and a system built by one of Machover’s PhD students, Ellsey is able to perform one of his compositions, “Eagle Song”, on the TED stage, using a system of gestures captuted by a camera. It’s a beautiful piece and an amazing moment on stage.

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