Q&A with Tod Machover – “How have your collaborations influenced you?”

Here is question 4 from New Vilna Review Editor Daniel Levenson’s recent interview with composer Tod Machover:

NVR: Throughout your career you have had the opportunity to collaborate with an incredibly diverse range of artists, thinkers, writers and entrepreneurs – can you tell us a little about how these collaborative efforts have influenced the ways in which you approach the creative process? Are there discoveries you have made along the way about your relationship(s) with/to technology, art and music that you might not have otherwise made?

TM: It’s funny, because one of the reasons that I decided to become a composer – deciding that my real passion was in creating original music – was that I loved that experience of working in relative isolation, letting my imagination follow whatever twisty paths it might discover, and not needing to explain my process or progress until a new work was fully developed. And yet because of the complex technological development which often results from that same imaginative process – imaging sounds and structures that can’t be created with existing instruments or tools – and because of the large-scale operas and installations that I do, my work is indeed often more collaborative and involves more people at all stages of development than almost any other composer you could think of. This paradox is demonstrated in where and how I live and work. Much of the research and development work is done at the MIT Media Lab, where I have been a professor for 25 years and which is one of the most interdisciplinary, open, collaborative and futuristic environments you could imagine. Yet I live and work about 20 minutes away in Waltham, on an 18th century farm in a very old and beautiful barn that I converted into my composing studio. This is where I go to think, to compose, and to write (like now!), and to develop all my ideas before sharing them with others, or when I need to withdraw and re-evaluate things as they evolve.


Bono, of the rock band U2, playing the Sensor Chair interactive instrument designed by Professor Machover at the MIT Media Lab

It is not simple to balance this public and private life, but it is this combination that works best for me. The isolation allows me to pursue any idea – to chase any sound – to its farthest extreme and most significant state, and to imagine its full effect. The rich collaborations I have enjoyed allow me to solve problems that I could not do by myself, and also – when done right – to tease out implications of ideas through the insights of others. I especially enjoy working with collaborators from vastly different backgrounds and experience levels, mixing artists and scientists, performers and engineers, seasoned professionals and fresh young students. I love an environment where everyone feels trusted and is therefore prepared to take risks, where we all feel like we are exploring an idea for the very first time and need to invent solutions from scratch. Whenever I feel like I am using previous answers to solve new problems, or imagining existing sounds to compose next melodies, I am uncomfortable and think that I have selected the wrong project and that it is time to start again with something else. Of course I have gotten pretty good over the years at defining and selecting just the kinds of projects which stimulate me most and use my skills the most fully.


From the New Vilna Review: “Music, Technology and Immortality: an Interview with Composer and MIT Professor, Tod Machover”

Copyright 2011 The New Vilna Review. Republished here with the express permission of the publisher of the New Vilna Review.

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