Composer Tod Machover presented the following address at the Bienen School of Music’s convocation on Saturday, June 18, 2016:

Thank you so much, Dean Montgomery, for that very kind introduction and what a pleasure to be here with you all this morning.

Dear distinguished and honored guests, parents, grandparents, family, friends, faculty, and of course, class of 2016 – which, as Dr. Montgomery mentioned, you’re the first class to have been able to spend time in this unbelievable Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, and you also launched the center so your sounds will resonate in there as the center grows over the years. I’m blown away by how very beautiful it is; it’s really something. 

Heartiest congratulations to all of you for completing your studies here at the Bienen School. As you know better than anyone, music is one of the most wonderful and most important things in the world, but it is also really, really hard…I know you know that as well!

I remember when I decided to devote my life to music. I think I was a senior in high school. I chose music because it seemed to me to be the activity that brought together all my different interests and skills in one work; it seemed to be a very powerful and special way of sharing thoughts and feelings with others; and, kind of perversely, it felt to me as the one activity – especially music composition – which would allow me and force me to grow through a whole lifetime, always being something impossible to completely master. And you know what, I was right about that. But it also means that I know how remarkably impressive it is that you have completed these rigorous studies and achieved such a high level of mastery.

But today I also invite you to think about your life ahead in music as a path of continual exploration, experimentation and adventure. 

The world needs your beautiful music – now more than ever – but it also needs you to be bold, and boundary-breaking and brave.

Because you are entering a world that is changing so fast – scarily fast! – most of the assumptions held by previous generations about how to build a career in music, what role music plays in the world, even what music “means,” have pretty much been thrown out the window. It’s almost as if all the constraints that society traditionally placed on music have been removed, and music has been totally liberated, ready to be reinvented.

This is expressed particularly well in the recent book Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff, who is the jazz and pop critic for The New York Times. Ratliff writes: “The most significant progress in the recent history of music has to do with listening. How we listen to music could be, for perhaps the first time in centuries, every bit as important to its history and evolution as what the composer intends when writing it.”

Now that was a little bit strange and shocking to read as a composer but I think Ratliff is on to something. What he means is that since we all listen to so much different, eclectic, totally contrasting music all the time, the way we that choose, use, combine and juxtapose these songs and sounds is the most creative musical task for today’s times. And that just goes to show how much music needs to be rethought now.

It is your generation that will give music new power, new potential, and new purpose. I know that’s a scary thought, and a big responsibility, but I personally think it is also a really, really exciting challenge and opportunity!

And make no mistake about it. We are in the middle of a huge generational shift. Just five months ago, in January, three musical giants passed away at almost the same time: Pierre Boulez, David Bowie, and someone you probably have never heard of (but I’m going to tell you a little bit about): Marvin Minsky.

Boulez, who I worked with quite closely, taught us that music is worth thinking deeply about and even fighting for – furiously. He demonstrated how music can communicate pure ideas, about time, experience, memory, dialogue, resonance – all kinds of things – just through sound.

Bowie showed us that music is a uniquely powerful medium for establishing and conveying identity – a sense of who one is and what group one belongs to – both through the way he changed his own identity with each project (morphing and shocking, as we know, until the day he died, literally) but also by providing many musical havens – true lifelines – for people whose own identity left them nowhere else to go.

Marvin Minsky – who was one of my mentors and heroes – spent his career at MIT and is famous for being one of the fathers of Artificial Intelligence, one of the first people to figure out how to make a machine think or try to think like a human being. I actually think Marvin was one of the great psychologist of our time – maybe the Freud of our time –  and if you look at his book, The Society of Mind, you’ll see why.

But Marvin was also a piano prodigy, and he spent his whole life using music as the medium through which to explore what it means to be human. He posed out-of-the-box questions about music that others never seem to ask – maybe they think they are too simple. His seminal paper, “Music, Mind and Meaning” (which I strongly encourage you to read…in fact, if I were your professor, I’d assign it to you right now!) starts with the seemingly simple question: “Why do we like music?” Think about it: do we actually really know the answer to that question? Again Minsky: “Why does every society have music? What function does music serve? Since music probably uses more different parts of our brain than any other activity, might it exist to help us synchronize our minds, to get the different brain-parts to work together? Could music be a way of practicing thinking, or of exercising our emotions, in a way that is safely removed from any risk of failure in the real-world? Is music a special form of storytelling that invites us to conjure up the characters and conflicts in our own minds, stimulating active, creative participation just-through-listening?”

By asking these types of questions, Marvin Minsky inspired me – and many others – to think of music as one of the most beautiful human mysteries, an activity that is connected to – not separated from – everything else in life and everything in nature. I invite you to follow Marvin’s example and to imagine ever bigger, ever more powerful ways that we can understand music’s magic, and then use that magic to transform the world.

So how can we do that?

Think of music as one of the most beautiful human mysteries, an activity that is connected to – not separated from – everything else in life and everything in nature.

First, be creative, all the time! Now, I know that sounds pretty obvious, but since you’re all now experts, masters, pros in your fields…I challenge you to forget all of that learning, at least some of the time. Think through each musical problem, each musical project, as if you’re the first person to ever consider it. That might be inventing a new way for audiences to actively participate in concerts; or building listening spaces far away from concert halls – where sounds can surround or near-silence can seduce; or maybe it is designing a piece of music that lasts a million years (like one of my students just did). Or producing an opera where the “divas” are a flock of 100 sheep (as actually happened this spring at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Did any of you see that? It was unbelievably moving – and I can promise you that it was more promising and more buzzworthy than any premiere this season at the Metropolitan Opera!). Or maybe, this rethinking of music, is simply reimagining a body of musical work that everyone thought they knew and understood, uncovering surprising depth and coherence and power, as Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Reilly recently accomplished in their recordings of the complete Beethoven works for cello and piano. I’m a cellist, I’ve played those pieces since I was a kid, and hearing this new recording of theirs is like hearing this music for the very first time. You’re all capable of reinventing existing music like that.

Second, embrace technology as your friend – a powerful, useful, creative force that will keep growing in impact throughout your lives and careers…I promise you that it will. You want to be inventing technology as much as possible, not just using it, because there are new surprises all the time.

Just earlier this week, there was an announcement from MIT researchers that a new process has just been invented that enables computers to listen to any sound in the world and to reproduce it automatically. Now, I haven’t heard this yet but people say that the result is so realistic, so convincing, that nobody can tell the difference between the real and the recreated. Kind of strange, but it has many, many interesting implications.

There are many examples like this but just the other day, I was walking around the MIT Media Lab where I work – which is a really unusual place, I invite you all to visit – and I ran into a grad student who wasn’t in my group and I asked him what he was working on. He told me with completely seriousness, “mind reading.” This sounds like science fiction today, but I can promise you that in your lifetimes, machines will know what thoughts look like inside the mind, and it’s very likely that it will become possible for all of us to customize our performances or our pieces to have maximum impact on a particular person, for specific reason, at a precise moment.

But unfortunately, technology has become so common, so ubiquitous, that we often take it for granted. There does seem to be an app for just about everything. The important thing is to go beyond ready-made apps, and to use technology to shape and share your own personal vision. Technology is the most powerful, the most malleable, the most universal language of our time. It allows us to bring into the world anything straight from our imagination: to make instruments that respond to our intentions and emotions, turning supple melodies into massive symphonies; to build software that allows anyone – young or old, conservatory-trained or playground bound – to compose sophisticated songs simply by drawing with lines and colors; to go beyond opera, combining sound with all the senses – including taste and touch and space and smell and more – into a Gesamtkunstwerk that Wagner never could have imagined; to develop music that cures illness, promotes physical and mental wellbeing, provides insight into ourselves, and establishes profound connections with others.

This last category is probably the most important of all. No task is more urgent right now than healing our fractured communities through music, and I am certain that this urgency will only continue to crescendo over the coming years. Think of your life in music as a life of service, and find every possible way you can to use your sonic and social skills to connect people, to increase understanding and empathy between those who on the surface have the least in common.

We have been trying to do this in small and large ways at the Media Lab, most recently through our City Symphonies project. The idea is to make a sonic portrait of a city – using traditional musical elements like melody, harmony, rhythm and texture combined with the most meaningful real sounds of that place – from wind to cars to conversation to street-banged buckets – sounds that resonate emotionally and evoke our relationship to home and community. We do this in coordination with each city’s symphony orchestra and in collaboration with everyone who lives there. The key word is collaboration: we invite everyone in the city to work with me and my team to create each of these compositions, from the very first musical idea to the final culminating performance. We customize process and software, workshops and improvs (online, in person and everything in between) depending on who and what we discover in each place.

Think of your life in music as a life of service, and find every possible way you can to use your sonic and social skills to connect people, to increase understanding and empathy between those who on the surface have the least in common.

Over the past three years, we have created City Symphonies in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe, starting in Toronto and most recently in Detroit. Each experience has been enlightening, but creating Symphony in D for Detroit – with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the people of Detroit – was truly special, one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had! Young and old, rich and poor, expert and amateur, people from every conceivable cultural background and musical taste, lifelong residents of Detroit and recently settled entrepreneurs – all came together to craft and create a riveting musical story of Detroit’s past, present, and future. The project allowed people to think together about what they shared, what they wanted, what could be hoped for and achieved, and how to get there – all through music. The final composition brought together many thousands of contributions, forged into a forcefully coherent piece with a myriad of vibrant strands.

Symphony in D galvanized the whole city of Detroit and made a big boom around the world. It established a new kind of musical ecology, through which everyone was connected to the city and to each other. We’re currently working on expanding the City Symphony model in various ways, including trying to tie together cities across the globe. And as so often happens in our “unusual” process that I usually take with my projects, the best takeaways will most likely be elements that I did not even think of when we first started the project.

This is the kind of musical exploration that I particularly enjoy, although believe me, it actually is very frightening to leap into the unknown with a project like this; and that never gets any easier. Sharing artistic control over my creation and letting other voices come in… this is the kind of risk that I think we must take today, when so much is at stake. It’s quite a different life from what I imagined when I was sitting there, at my Juilliard graduation, several years ago. My life in music has turned out to be different than I expected.

But believe me, it’s worth it…it’s more than worth it.

So I invite each of you – I implore you – to be an explorer, not just an expert. Pose big problems, take big risks, make a really big difference. Don’t be afraid of the musical unknown; run right toward it! As another one of my heroes, John Cage, wrote (somewhat extremely): “Understanding is overrated. If I understand something, I have no further use for it. So I try to make a music which I don’t understand and which will be difficult for other people to understand, too.” (That’s John Cage for you…)

I do invite you to use your music to make the world a more beautiful place – guided by your passion and imagination – but also to make it a better place. Remember…you’re not in this for worldly fame or fortune (although those things don’t hurt), but to serve – to serve your creative muse and to serve your communities.

Be an explorer, not just an expert. Pose big problems, take big risks, make a really big difference. Don’t be afraid of the musical unknown; run right toward it!

I very much look forward to hearing the astounding sounds that you will all bring into the world, and just can’t wait to experience the harmony that will resonate from your practice and emanate from your good, generous works.

Thank you so much for inviting me here today to share some thoughts with you. Congratulations! Go forth and make some noise!

  • convocation