Remarks about Tod Machover In Presenting the 2003 Ray Kurzweil Award of Technology in Music

August 11, 2003 by Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil presented the 2003 Ray Kurzweil Award of Technology in Music to Tod Machover at the Fourth Annual Telluride Tech Festival (August 8-10, 2003). The award was in recognition of Machover’s pioneering research at the MIT Media Lab in music technology, such as “hyperinstruments,” as well as his achievements as composer and performer.

Published on August 10, 2003, based on an award presentation at the Fourth Annual Telluride Tech Festival.

It’s a great pleasure for me to present—albeit virtually—the 2003 Ray Kurzweil Award of Technology in Music to Tod Machover.

I’ve known Tod for over a decade through our mutual ties to the MIT Media Lab. Every time our paths cross, I am reminded how unique Tod is in the extraordinary range of his contributions. He is the only person I am aware of who contributes on a world-class level to both the technology of music creation and to music itself. Even within these two distinct areas, Tod’s contributions are remarkably diverse, and of exquisite quality.

The Los Angeles Times calls Tod Machover "America’s most wired composer." "Brilliantly gifted" says the New York Times. The New Yorker calls him "one of the most innovative and imaginative composers around."

In the area of music technology, perhaps his best known invention is that of "hyperinstruments," created at the MIT Media Lab, where he was one of the founders. Hyperinstruments are computer-based instruments that add their own intelligence to their human users. The idea is to use sensors to pick up the human musician’s intent, and then augment and enhance the sounds created using the computer software’s own intelligence. This augmentation affects the tonal qualities produced as well as the actual note sequences played. The effect is so compelling that hyperinstruments have been used by a wide array of musicians, from Yo-Yo Ma to Peter Gabriel and Prince. Beyond the immediate impact of the instruments is the very important concept of building instruments that allow the intimate interplay of both human and computer intelligence.

Other projects include systems that allow non-musicians to create music and music games to teach music to children.

On the music creation front, Tod is both an eminently gifted composer and performer. His music has been commissioned by many leading institutions, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The San Francisco Symphony, Lincoln Center, and the Tokyo String Quartet. He has received many honors for his music, including France’s highest cultural honor and the first DigiGlobe Prize in Interactive Media from the German government.

I had the pleasure of hearing recently his fifth opera, called Resurrection, which was a beautiful and moving experience. Resurrection is particularly interesting because it is a compelling synthesis of classical forms and contemporary sounds. His unique interactive "Brain Opera," which combines Tod’s interest in both music technology and music content, has recently been permanently installed at Vienna’s House of Music.

I could go on for a long time describing all of Tod’s innovations in music technology and music itself, but I think you get the idea. It is a special honor for me to present this first award to a uniquely creative individual.


Tod Machover with the musical ball, a continuous-control musical instrument that uses embroidered conductive thread as pressure sensors, allowing the ball to be soft and plush, rather than covered with hard buttons or keys.

Machover on Hyperinstruments:

The hyperinstrument project was started in 1986 with the goal of designing expanded musical instruments, using technology to give extra power and finesse to virtuosic performers. Such hyperinstruments were designed to augment guitars and keyboards, percussion and strings, and even conducting, and have been used by some of the world’s foremost performers…

Since 1992, the focus of the hyperinstrument group has expanded in an attempt to build sophisticated interactive musical instruments for non-professional musicians, students, music lovers, and the general public. Systems such as Drum-Boy and Joystick Music allow non-musicians to shape and create complex and interesting musical pieces by using gestures or word descriptions (such as musical "adjectives") to influence the real-time interactive environment.

Current hyperinstrument research is attempting to push the envelope in both of these directions: by designing high-level professional systems that measure the most subtle and sophisticated human performance; and by building ever-more-powerful, interactive entertainment systems for the general public (such as interactive music games, music learning systems, and Internet-oriented group performance and creation).

The research focus of all this work is on designing computer systems (sensors, signal processing, and software) that measure and interpret human expression and feeling, as well as on exploring the appropriate modalities and innovative content of interactive art and entertainment environments.

We have also expanded the hyperinstrument environment to include gestural and intuitive control of visual media (Laser Rangefinder, Meteorite Museum, Stretchables, etc.). Recent projects involve both new hyperinstruments for children and musical amateurs, and high-end hyperinstruments capable of expanding and transforming a symphony orchestra or an entire opera stage.