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Tech Night to premiere Machover work

Tod Machover
Tod Machover
Photo / Steve Chorbak
Screenshot from Marc Downie's live visual component to Tod Machover's composition "Jeux Deux."
Screenshot from Marc Downie's live visual component to Tod Machover's composition "Jeux Deux."
Image courtesy / Marc Downie

The Boston Pops Orchestra will perform "Jeux Deux," a new concerto for HyperPiano and orchestra composed by Media Lab Professor Tod Machover at Boston Pops concerts on Wednesday, June 22, and Thursday, June 23.

The Pops Orchestra presented the premiere of "Jeux Deux" at Tech Night 2005 on Thursday, June 2 in Symphony Hall, conducted by Keith Lockhart.

Machover is a world-renowned composer of innovative music that synthesizes acoustic and electronic sound. "Jeux Deux" was commissioned by the Pops to celebrate MIT's 108th Tech Night with the Pops this year. The title is a playful reference to Debussy's "Jeux" and a near translation from the French for "two-person game."

Machover's concerto features pianist Michael Chertock, who plays a Yamaha Disklavier grand instead of a traditional piano, and it includes live images projected onto a large screen above the Pops orchestra.

Media Lab graduate student Marc Downie produced the images using video close-ups of Chertock's fingers and hands that morph into colorful, abstract forms or recognizable human shapes depending on changes in the music. The result is a real-time illustration of the dialogue between piano and orchestra and between soloist and "hyperized" piano.

Lynn Heinemann of the Office of the Arts talked to Machover about his latest composition.

Q. How did the Pops commission come about?

A. The Pops contacted me out of the blue for this commission. They were interested in having something exciting and fun, that used interesting new technology, that was about 15 minutes long and that would not be too hard to rehearse. I decided on a concerto because this allows for extra rehearsal with a soloist, who can then easily fit into the orchestra. I decided on piano so I could use one of Yamaha's new generation Disklavier 9-foot concert grands, which are magnificent instruments with computer playback and recording built in. I wanted the piece to be purely acoustic--but also wanted to use next-generation hyperinstrument technology to add to the soloist's virtuosity.

Q. How will the Disklavier become a "hyperpiano"?

A. Yamaha--a longtime sponsor and collaborator--is providing the Disklavier piano from their New York studio. The "hyper" part is ours. Mike Fabio (SB '04, and poised to become a Media Arts and Sciences master's student) has designed a hyperinstrument software system that analyzes what the pianist is playing and transforms and enhances various parts--sometimes monumentally so--according to the pianist's interpretation. So, we added a Mac Mini computer to the Yamaha Disklavier that does all the software processing, and a parallel visual system that translates the music and the performer's movements into image.

Q. Does the music have regular notation?

A. The piece is notated fairly traditionally, which is essential if one wants to have efficient orchestral rehearsals. There are several "Mini-Cadenzas" and "Textures" where the piano soloist has a certain amount of latitude and where I use freer notation. Besides the Disklavier, there is a second small two-octave keyboard on the piano, easily accessible to the pianist's left hand. The pianist plays silent notes on this keyboard at specific moments of the piece in order to change the state of the hyperinstrument software. This allows the whole technical aspect of the piece to be completely controlled by the soloist, using music keyboards instead of alphanumeric ones.

Q. Describe the visual component of the piece.

A. Marc's visuals are based on video taken from the pianist playing sections of this piece and turned into a repertoire of colors, lines and shapes that can morph in and out of representation much as the music mutates in and out of textural focus. As with Marc's recent collaborations with prominent choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown, the "image choreography" always suggests and relates to what is being performed live, but often in subtle and mysterious ways.

Q. Will "Jeux Deux" have a life after its Pops performances?

A. Just as I wanted "Jeux Deux" to be relatively easy to rehearse and to work equally well on Pops and non-Pops concerts, I also wanted it to be as simple as possible technically while still pushing the sophistication of our hyperinstruments to the next level. This should make it extremely easy to bring the piece to other venues, and there is already significant interest in performing the piece both here and abroad.

Tech Night at Pops sold out to a crowd of 2005 graduates and alumni returning to campus for reunions and Tech Week.

Machover's "Jeux Deux" will be performed at Boston Pops concerts on Wednesday, June 22, and Thursday, June 23.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 1, 2005 (download PDF).

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