Music museums of the 21st century: High-tech, cutting edge, interactive

September 30, 2011

The new music museum of the 21st century is high-tech, cutting-edge, interactive. It’s a place where music is made, not simply heard. It’s filled with different ways to make sounds. And chances are that Tod Machover had a hand in designing it.

At the Venn-diagram intersection of music and technology, Machover reigns supreme. He’s a musical creator, a composer, a computer geek. He heads a group at the MIT media lab called the Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group.

He has invented software, Hyperscore, that helps people compose complicated new pieces of music through purely visual, intuitive means. He has invented musical technologies to enhance performance — spawning, among other things, Guitar Hero. He has developed a number of high-tech musical instruments that can be played with a movement of an arm, a touch of a finger. And almost any time someone wants to build a music museum, Machover is called in as a consultant.

‘The Brain Opera’

In Vienna, in a spacious building that was once the home of the composer Otto Nicolai, the Haus der Musik (house of music) is a high-tech monument to the city’s signature art form. One floor is devoted to memorabilia of Vienna’s most famous composers (from Mozart to Arnold Schoenberg); another allows visitors to explore acoustics and perception through high-tech displays — walking through, for example, a room-size drum. (Machover equates this section of the building to “one of the better science museums.”) The top floor is devoted to the music of the future, represented by an interactive piece of Machover’s called “The Brain Opera.”

Expanding how you think

The Brain Opera” was first displayed — or performed? — at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1996. Think high-tech meets “Romper Room.” It consists of interactive instruments with graphic names — the Gesture Wall, the Melody Easel — with which visitors can make and manipulate different sounds. The sounds are then captured on chips and combined in a room called “the future music blender.”

Originally, the combination of sounds was conceived as a “performance” of the work, but the concept had to be altered to fit the exigencies of a museum space. Now, the sounds that you make are preserved on computer chips in colorful pieces of plastic, and visitors can combine and manipulate them by dropping the plastic pieces into a kind of token machine that plays them.

“It’s not meant to be a concert,” Machover said. “It’s meant to [help people] think about music in different ways. No matter who you are, there are ways to listen even more sensitively and fully than you do today. Part of it is to say you can make your own music — it doesn’t just have to be other people’s music. If you shape it and start from scratch, you’ll know about music in a different way.”

What is the goal of music museums? There are, of course, musical instrument museums, designed to preserve specific collections of objects. But “music” is a more abstract concept. Many museums have a certain amount of memorabilia, such as Seattle’s Experience Music Project, on which Machover also consulted and which opened the same year as the Haus der Music, in 2000. It also incorporates an element of interactivity so people are not just looking at exhibits but also making music themselves.

Meteorite

It’s notable that these museums opened at a time when the Internet was just coming into its own. Orchestras were designing fancy new Web sites and imagining streaming all their concerts. Technology was the new frontier. And this all gave rise to the question: If the point of a museum of music is not to teach, then what exactly is it for?

A culmination of the music museum as aesthetic object was a space in Essen, Germany, called Meteorite, which Machover also consulted on and which opened in 1999. Meteorite was a high-tech, sound-producing body that juxtaposed light and sound and responded to cues from the people inside it.

“It was like a museum,” Machover said, “but there weren’t any texts at all. It was not pedagogical. [The] idea was to be in a totally new kind of space, with sound and image, and touch the walls and have the sound change.” Meteorite was not designed as a permanent space; it closed after a few years.

A merger of forms

Today, classical music organizations are, more and more, becoming like museums. Rather than new distinct museums of music, the past few years have seen a number of high-tech performing arts centers that incorporate interactive music centers within the building. Take the Casa da Musica, the Rem Koolhaas-designed performing arts center in Porto, Portugal, that Machover calls “the best of its kind.” Or take the New World Symphony’s new hall, specifically designed by Frank Gehry to incorporate different kinds of performances, simultaneous video projections, interactive concerts. The European Concert Hall Organization, ECHO, has started a digital arm examining what technology can add to music performance.

“The nice thing,” Machover said, “is that the technology is getting common enough that a lot of interesting things can be done without complicated infrastructure. You can do things with mobile phones, iPads, try something out.”

Another reason that orchestras are the logical music museums of the future: “Most of them have a home,” Machover said. “If they just would think it’s an extension of their outreach.”

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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