We had the opportunity last week to witness a new piece of music take shape at the M.I.T. Media Lab. Instead of flowing from the pen of a lone latter-day Mozart, this composition emerged on a computer screen from the collective efforts of two classrooms engaging in a composing charrette via a Skype connection. A cluster of middle schoolers from the Armenian Sisters’ Academy in Lexington, MA, gathered in a corner of Tod Machover’s research space at the Media Lab, while a flat-screen delivered a stream from another group of teens living more than 8,700 kilometers away in the village of Gargar, Armenia. A facilitator on the Armenian side apologized that half the class had been unable to attend because blizzards had left many roads impassable.
Under Tod’s expert cajoling, the teens launched into the project by humming some melodies, which were noted down using Hyperscore, a graphical software developed at the lab. The screen quickly filled up with melodic ideas, or ‘motifs’, and a percussion sequence. The kids then started assembling their composition. “Do you want the piece to start with a big explosion, or something quieter?” Tod asked. Something quieter, was the consensus. A motif was selected and “drawn” onto the digital canvas. A second pensive motif was introduced, and then it was time to bring in some livelier motifs to wake things up. The kids started piling on layers, made a motif swing high and swoop low… and they were out of time. In one hour, they had put together the first minute of their composition. They plan to meet a few more times to complete a short work, which will be premiered at the end of this month by the Armenian National Symphony. Talk about pressure!