Machover and Minsky at World Science Festival

Marvin Minsky against projected image from Machover's Brain Opera project (NASA photos)

Last week, a crowd gathered under the dome of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City to hear Tod Machover and artificial intelligence visionary Marvin Minsky converse about music and the mind. Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s On Point, moderated. One take-away that I thought was particularly pertinent to opera was Marvin’s opening remark: He noted that one of the interesting aspects of music is that it involves several things happening at once, setting up a unique type of cognitive and emotional experience.

Still from Flora, by Yoichiro Kawaguchi

The audience then heard Tod’s Flora, a work for pre-recorded voice and electronic music combined with digital imagery which was prepared for the planetarium dome by Peter Torpey. The constantly shape-shifting, organic imagery is highly complex and detailed, too much visual information to take in at once, but the music’s development, anchored by the gorgeous vocal of soprano Karol Bennett, forms an emotional arc that gathers the intricate visual and sonic shards into a coherent experience.

Opera ramps up the number of things that the mind has to process simultaneously. It combines instrumental music, voice, text, dramatic narrative, action and imagery. These multiple elements support the most complex layering of music imaginable. In Cosi Fan Tutte, a romantic comedy with a frothy happy ending, the narrative provides the frame for Mozart’s music to convey profoundly ambiguous emotions which the characters cannot express in words.

The second musical offering of the evening was “Minsky Melodies” from Tod’s Brain Opera. The libretto was distilled from Tod’s interviews with Marvin about his Society of Mind hypothesis of how the brain works. This is a delightfully self-referential digital opera, with words, colors, motion and music representing and at the same time literally activating a cacophonous society of mental agents in this listener’s brain.

The evening concluded spectacularly with Joélle Harvey performing “Miranda’s Aria”, from Death and the Powers. Miranda, the young daughter of Simon Powers, sings heartrendingly of missing the physical touch of her father, who has disembodied himself into the System. For all it’s futuristic, high-tech spectacle, the opera is at its heart about the most primal human desires. – June

Joélle Harvey sings Miranda’s Aria from the American Repertory Theater workshop

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