Near the end of Tod Machover's 1987 opera "VALIS," a "wild-looking" composer named Mini performs an unusual solo piece on an artificially intelligent instrument. "Mini appears to be sculpting sounds, setting off musical structures with the flick of his hand — he seems to be playing the orchestra of the future," reads the libretto, which is based on Philip K. Dick's 1981 novel of the same name.
During the opera's initial performances starting in 1987, Mini was portrayed by Machover himself, who also devised the concept of "hyperinstruments" for the opera: electronic instruments that can tell what and how someone is playing, and embellish it. "It adds things to the performance, as layers," said Machover in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. For example, "it could be that I'm playing a monophonic line and it gets orchestrated."
Given the technological restrictions of the time, Machover's "hyperinstrument" was entirely prerecorded, as the composer/performer pantomimed as if operating some motion-detected electronic instrument.
But now, the opera is getting its first remount in over 20 years, courtesy of MIT's Media Lab, where Machover now works. And now, that "hyperinstrument" can be more fully realized:
The lights are actually part of a system of sensors connected to an artificial intelligence program designed by Manaswi Mishra, a PhD student in Media Arts and Sciences and member of Machover's group. The program pulls from a library of pre-selected sounds while Masuelli manipulates the jar, and Mishra tweaks the sonic output from his laptop.
Thus, the new generation of hyperinstruments: the Mini jar and "VocalCords," an interface designed by master's student Max Addae that alters the human voice by pulling on three stretchy strings attached to a device. These technologies dance on the boundary between artificial and human intelligence.
This all sounds pretty cool! And, as the Globe also notes, the AI-adjacent themes of Dick's work are eerily more relevant today than they were in 1987 when the opera first premiered, or in 1981 when the book was published.
VALIS will be performed at MIT's Building W97 in Cambridge, Massachusetts for just three performances this weekend — Friday and Saturday, September 9 and 10 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, September 10 at 3pm. Tickets are full, but you can join the waitlist; it's free.
An AI opera from 1987 reboots for a new generation [AZ Madonna / Boston Globe]