In the mid-1980s, composer Tod Machover came across a copy of the science fiction novel “VALIS” by Philip K. Dick in a Parisian bookstore. Based on a mystical vision that Dick called his “pink light experience,” “VALIS” was an acronym for “vast system of active living intelligence.” The metaphysical novel would become the basis for Machover’s opera of the same name, first performed at the Center Pompidou in 1987 and recently revived at MIT for a new generation.
At the time, Machover was in his 20s and director of music research at France’s famed IRCAM Institute, a hotbed of the avant-garde known for its pioneering research in music technology. The Pompidou, says Machover, had given him carte blanche to create a new piece for its 10th anniversary. So throughout the summer and fall, the composer had built an elaborate theater inside the center’s cavernous lobby, installing speakers and hundreds of video monitors.
Creation of the first computer opera
Machover, who is now the Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media and director of the Opera of the Future research group at the MIT Media Lab, had initially wanted to call on the Ensemble Intercontemporain of IRCAM founder Pierre Boulez, but was turned down when he asked to rehearse with them for two full months. “Like a rock band,” he said. “I went back and asked myself, ‘Well, what is the smallest number of musicians who can create and generate the richness and complexity of the music that I was thinking about?’ »
He decides that his orchestra will only be composed of two musicians: a keyboardist and a percussionist. With tools such as personal computers, MIDI, and DX7 newly available, the possibilities for digital sound and intelligent interaction were beginning to expand. Soon, Machover took the position as a founding member of MIT’s Media Lab, shuttling between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Paris. “That’s when we invented hyperinstruments,” says Machover. Hyperinstruments, developed at the Media Lab in collaboration with Machover’s very first graduate student, RA Joe Chung, allowed the musician to control a much fuller range of sound. At the time, he says, “no serious composer was using real-time computer instruments for concert music.”
Rumor spreads at IRCAM that Machover’s opera is unusual to say the least. During December 1987, “VALIS” opened to packed houses in Paris, eliciting both cheers and groans of horror. “It was really controversial,” says Machover, “It really moved people. It was like, ‘Wow, we’ve never heard anything like this. It has a catchy melody, harmonies and rhythms. ‘a manner that new music is not supposed to have.’ “VALIS” existed somewhere between an orchestra and a rock band, the purely acoustic dissolving into the electric as the opera progressed. In today’s remix era, audiences may be accustomed to a mix of musical styles, but this hybrid approach was new then. Machover – who trained as a cellist in addition to playing bass in bands rock – has always borrowed freely between high and low, classical and rock, human and synthetic, acoustic and high-tech, combining parts to create new wholes.
The story of Dick’s philosophical novel is itself a study of fragments, of divided self, as the main character, Phil, confronts his fictional double, Horselover Fat, while embarking on a hallucinatory spiritual quest following the suicide of Dick. ‘a friend. At the time Dick was writing, the term artificial intelligence was not yet widely used. 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 linked a vast array of seemingly disparate ideas. “To him, that’s what God was: this complex technological system,” Machover says. “His big question was: Is it possible that technology is the answer? Is it possible that something is the answer, or am I just lost? He was looking for what could possibly reconnect him to the world and reconnect the parts of his personality, and imagined technology to do just that.
A show for contemporary times
A full production of “VALIS” hasn’t been staged in more than 30 years, but now is the perfect time to re-stage the opera as Dick’s original vision of the living artificial intelligence system – along with the hopes for its promise and fears for its pitfalls – seems increasingly prophetic. The new performance was developed at MIT over the past several years with funding from the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology, among other sources. Performed at the MIT Theater Building W97, the production features baritone Davóne Tines and mezzo-soprano Anaïs Reno. Also joining them are vocalists Timur Bekbosunov, David Cushing, Maggie Finnegan, Rose Hegele and Kristin Young, as well as pianist/keyboardist Julia Carey and multi-percussionist Maria Finkelmeier. New AI-enhanced technologies, created and performed by Max Addae, Emil Droga, Nina Masuelli, Manaswi Mishra and Ana Schon, were developed in the Opera of the Future group at the MIT Media Lab, led by Machover.
At MIT, Machover collaborated with director Jay Scheib, a Class of 1949 professor of music and theater arts, whose augmented reality theater productions have long probed the confusing line between simulacra and reality. “We took live action camera feeds, processed the signal and then projected it, like a strange film, onto a variety of surfaces, both those of the television and screen, but also crosstalk and translucent,” explains Scheib. “It’s lots and lots of images accumulating at a very high speed, and a mixture of cinematic and operatic choreography and acting styles. In an innovative set designed by Oana Botez, lighting by Yuki Link, and media by Peter A. Torpey PhD ’13, the actors played multiple characters as shards and refracts of time. “Reality is constantly changing,” says Scheib.
As the opera moved towards the hallucinatory finale, becoming progressively disorienting, a computer music composer named Mini appeared, originally played by Machover, evoking the angelic hologram Sophia who delivers Phil/Fat to a state of wholeness . In the opera’s libretto, Mini is described as “sculpting sound” instead of simply playing the keyboard, “triggering musical structures with a simple movement of the hand – he seemed to be playing the orchestra of the future”. Machover composed Mini’s section beforehand in the original production, but the contemporary performance used a custom AI model, powered by Machover’s own compositions, to create new music in real time. “It’s not exactly an instrument. It’s a living system that is explored during performance,” says Machover. “It’s like a system that Mini could have built. »
While developing the project last spring, the Opéra du Futur group asked themselves the following question: how would Mini “execute” the system? “Because it’s live, it’s real, we wanted it to feel fresh and new, and not just someone waving their hands in the air,” says Machover. One day, Nina Masuelli ’23, who had recently completed her undergraduate studies at MIT, brought a large clear plastic jar into the lab. The group experimented with applying sensors to the pot and then connecting it to the AI system. As Mini manipulates the pot, the machine’s music responds in turn. “It’s incredibly magical,” says Machover. “It’s this new type of object that allows you to explore and form a living system right in front of you. It’s different every time, and every time it makes me smile with delight when something unexpected is revealed.
As the performance approached and Machover watched Masuelli continue to sculpt the sound with the hollow jug, a string of Christmas lights wrapped inside, something occurred to him: “Why don’t you be Mini?
In a way, in the age of ChatGPT and DALL-E, Mini’s exchange with the AI system is symbolic of humanity’s broader dance with artificial intelligence, as we experiment ways to exist and create alongside him: an ongoing endeavor that will ultimately be for the next generation to explore. Writing thousands of sprawling pages in what he calls his “exegesis,” Philip K. Dick spent the rest of his life after his “pink light experience” trying to make sense of a universe “transformed by the ‘information “. But to the many questions raised by “VALIS”: is technology the answer? — might never be fully explained, Machover says, “you can feel them through the music.”
The audience apparently felt the same way. As one reviewer wrote, “’VALIS’ is a lyrical tour de force. » All three shows were filled to capacity, with long waiting lists, and the reactions were extremely enthusiastic.
“It has been deeply gratifying to see that “VALIS” has captured the imagination of a new group of amazing creative collaborators and performers, brilliant student inventors and artists, and a wonderfully diverse audience in terms of “age and background,” Machover said, “This is due in part to the visionary nature of Philip K. Dick’s novel (much of which is even more relevant today than when the book was published). and opera). I hope this also reflects something of the musical vitality and richness of the score, which feels as fresh to me as when I composed it more than 35 years ago. I’m really excited that “VALIS” is back and I really hope it’s here to stay! »