Home Artificial Intelligence Re-imagining the opera of the longer term

Re-imagining the opera of the longer term

Re-imagining the opera of the longer term

Within the mid-Eighties, composer Tod Machover got here across a replica of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel “VALIS” in a Parisian bookstore. Based on a mystical vision Dick called his “pink light experience,” “VALIS” was an acronym for “vast energetic living intelligence system.” The metaphysical novel would turn into the idea for Machover’s opera of the identical name, which first premiered on the Pompidou Center in 1987, and was recently re-staged at MIT for a recent generation.

On the time, Machover was in his 20s and the director of musical research on the renowned French Institute IRCAM, a hotbed of the avant-garde known for its pioneering research in music technology. The Pompidou, Machover says, had given him carte blanche to create a recent piece for its tenth anniversary. So, throughout the summer and fall, the composer had gone about constructing an elaborate theater contained in the center’s cavernous entrance hall, installing speakers and lots of of video monitors.

Creating the primary computer opera

Machover, who’s now Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future research group, had originally wanted to make use of IRCAM founder Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain, but was turned down when he asked to rehearse with them for a full two months. “Like a rock band,” he says. “I went back and thought, ‘Well, what’s the smallest variety of players that could make and generate the richness and layered complexity of music that I used to be fascinated by?’”

He decided his orchestra would consist of only two musicians: a keyboardist and a percussionist. With tools like personal computers, MIDI, and the DX7 newly available, the chances of digital sound and intelligent interaction were starting to expand. Soon, Machover took a position as a founding faculty member of MIT’s Media Lab, shuttling backwards and forwards between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Paris. “That’s after we invented hyperinstruments,” says Machover. The hyperinstruments, developed on the Media Lab in collaboration with Machover’s very first graduate student RA Joe Chung, allowed the musician to regulate a much fuller range of sound. On the time, he says, “no serious composers were using real-time computer instruments for concert music.”

Word spread at IRCAM that Machover’s opera was, to say the least, unusual. Over the course of December 1987, “VALIS” opened to packed houses in Paris, eliciting each cheers and groans of horror. “It was really controversial,” Machover says, “It really stirred people up. It was like, ‘Wow, we’ve never heard anything like this. It has melody and harmonies and driving rhythms in a way that recent music isn’t presupposed to.’” “VALIS” existed somewhere between an orchestra and a rock band, the purely acoustic dissolving into the electrical because the opera progressed. In today’s era of the remix, audiences may be accustomed to a mélange of musical styles, but then this hybrid approach was recent. Machover — who trained as a cellist along with playing bass in rock bands — has all the time borrowed freely from high and low, classical and rock, human and artificial, acoustic and hi-tech, combining parts to create recent wholes.

The story of Dick’s philosophical novel is itself a study of fragments, of the divided self, because the foremost character, Phil, confronts his fictional double, Horselover Fat, while entering on a hallucinatory spiritual quest after the suicide of a friend. On the time of Dick’s writing, the term artificial intelligence had yet to attain widespread use. And yet, in “VALIS,” he combines ideas about AI and mysticism to explore questions of existence. In Dick’s vision, “VALIS” was the grand unifying theory that connected an enormous array of seemingly disparate ideas. “For him, that’s what God was: this complex technological system,” Machover says, “His big query was: Is it possible for technology to be the reply? Is it possible for anything to be the reply, or am I just lost? He was in search of what could possibly reconnect him to the world and reconnect the parts of his personality, and envisioned a technology to do this.”

A performance for the contemporary era

A full production of “VALIS” hasn’t been mounted in over 30 years, however it’s a fitting moment to re-stage the opera as Dick’s original vision of the living artificial intelligence system — in addition to hopes for its promise and fears for its pitfalls — seems increasingly prophetic. The brand new performance was developed at MIT over the course of the previous couple of years with funding from the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology, amongst other sources. Performed at MIT Theater Constructing W97, the production stars baritone Davóne Tines and mezzo-soprano Anaïs Reno. Joining them also were vocalists Timur Bekbosunov, David Cushing, Maggie Finnegan, Rose Hegele, and Kristin Young, in addition to pianist/keyboardist Julia Carey and multi-percussionist Maria Finkelmeier. Latest AI-enhanced technologies, created and performed by Max Addae, Emil Droga, Nina Masuelli, Manaswi Mishra, and Ana Schon, were developed within the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group, which Machover directs.

At MIT, Machover collaborated with theater director Jay Scheib, Class of 1949 Professor of Music and Theater Arts, whose augmented reality theater productions have long probed the confused border between the simulacra and the true. “We took camera feeds of live motion, process the signal after which project it back, like an odd film, on a wide range of surfaces, each TV- and screen-like but additionally diaphonous and translucent,” says Scheib, “It’s lots and numerous images accumulating at a very high speed, and a combination of choreography and forms of film acting, operatic acting.” Against an revolutionary set designed by Oana Botez, lighting by Yuki Link, and media by Peter A. Torpey PhD ’13, actors played multiple characters as time splinters and refracts. “Reality is continuously shifting,” says Scheib.

Because the opera sped toward the hallucinatory finale, becoming progressively disorienting, a pc music composer named Mini appeared, originally played by Machover, conjuring the angelic hologram Sophia who delivers Phil/Fat to a state of wholeness. Within the opera’s libretto, Mini is described as “sculpting sound” as a substitute of simply playing the keyboard, “setting off musical structures with the flick of his hand — he appeared to be playing the orchestra of the longer term.” Machover composed Mini’s section beforehand in the unique production, however the contemporary performance used a custom-built AI model, fed with Machover’s own compositions, to create recent music in real time. “It’s not an instrument, exactly. It’s a living system that gets explored in the course of the performance,” says Machover, “It’s like a system that Mini might even have built.”

As they were developing the project this past spring, the Opera of the Future group wrestled with the query: How would Mini “perform” the system? “Because that is live, that is real, we wanted it to feel fresh and recent, and never just be someone waving hands within the air,” says Machover. Someday, Nina Masuelli ’23, who had recently accomplished her undergraduate degree at MIT, brought a big clear plastic jar into the lab. The group experimented with applying sensors to the jar, after which connected it to the AI system. As Mini manipulates the jar, the machine’s music responds in turn. “It’s incredibly magical,” says Machover. “It’s this recent sort of object that enables a living system to be explored and to form right in front of you. It’s different each time, and each time it makes me smile with delight as something unexpected is revealed.”

Because the performance neared, and Machover watched Masuelli proceed to sculpt sound with the hole jug, a string of Christmas lights coiled inside, something occurred to him: “Why don’t you be Mini?”

In some ways, within the age of ChatGPT and DALL-E, Mini’s exchange with the AI system is symbolic of humanity’s larger dance with machine intelligence, as we experiment with ways to exist and create alongside it: an ongoing enterprise that can eventually be for the following generation to explore. Writing 1000’s of sprawling pages in what he called his “exegesis,” Philip K. Dick spent the remainder of his life after his “pink light experience” attempting to make sense of a universe “transformed by information.” Though the numerous questions raised by “VALIS” — Is technology the reply? — might never be fully explained, says Machover, “you possibly can feel them through music.”

Audiences apparently felt the identical way. As one reviewer wrote, “’VALIS’ is an operatic tour-de-force.” The three shows were filled to capability, with long waiting lists, and response was wildly enthusiastic.

“It has been deeply gratifying to see that “VALIS” has captured the imagination of a recent group of creative collaborators and astonishing performers, of sensible student inventors and artists, and of the general public, splendidly diverse in age and background,” says Machover, “That is partially resulting from the visionary nature of Philip K. Dick’s novel (much of which is much more relevant today than when the book and opera first appeared). I hope it also reflects something of the musical vitality and richness of the rating, which feels as fresh to me as once I composed it over 35 years ago. I’m truly delighted that “VALIS” is back, and hope very much that it’s here to remain!”


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