June 3, 2003


Playing Music as a Toy, and a Toy as Music
By James Gorman

Tod Machover - composer, inventor, cellist and educator - has made it clear to me that I am a puritan. This has nothing to do with sex. It's about another sort of seduction, the lure of electronics and computer technology, the easy pleasure of video games, the ultimately hollow virtual world.

Mr. Machover, professor of music and media at the M.I.T. Media Lab, is devoting considerable energy to luring children into the electronic world. He has invented electronic instruments that allow anyone, skilled or not, to enjoy the kind of creativity and collaboration available only to the most advanced players of traditional instruments.

Mr. Machover has not ignored those advanced players. He has, in the past, helped develop instruments like the hypercello, which Yo-Yo Ma used to perform one of Mr. Machover's compositions. But now, Mr. Machover has turned his hand to musical toys, or instruments for children.

He recently came to New York for a performance of his Toy Symphony and to conduct workshops at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Hyperscore, a composing tool he and his colleagues developed, is on display there as part of the National Design Triennial. The workshops allowed children to work with Hyperscore and play two electronic instruments called Beatbugs and Music Shapers.

I went to talk to him and to see and touch the two performance toys because of my curmudgeonly conviction that electronics, even in the service of creativity, could not be good for children, or anyone else for that matter.

I know a bit about electronic toys. I've had my hand in coverage of consumer technology. I have watched children (frequently mine) become completely absorbed in video games. I myself am easily addicted to them. Consequently, in my anti-technology moments, I have the moral fervor of a sinner.

I'm convinced that electronic entertainment can cast a sort of mist over the physical world human beings have bumped around in for so long, making it seem slow and out of focus, compared with the new flat screens.

Even if some game skills are transferable to life apart from the computer, including enhanced visual attention and peripheral vision, as reported in a study in Nature on Thursday by Dr. Daphne Bavelier and colleagues at the University of Rochester, the games create a world, as does television, which in some ways is more appealing than the physical one.

The games can even, it seems, put a veil between mind and body. The Cartesian mind/body division is no longer accepted by science, but video games are Descartes's revenge. The eyes and fingers are allowed in the game, but the rest of the body becomes dead weight - meat, as William Gibson described it in the science fiction novel "Neuromancer."

And yet, researchers in artificial intelligence and behavioral sciences often talk now about embodied intelligence. Dr. Antonio R. Damasio, a neurobiologist at the University of Iowa, who is the author of "Descartes's Error" and more recently "Looking for Spinoza," has argued that the mind contains a model of the human body and that the actions of the body inform the brain. "The mind exists," he writes in "Spinoza," "because there is a body to furnish it with contents."

In "The Hand," written several years ago, Dr. Frank R. Wilson, a clinical professor of neurology at Stanford, suggests that the hand has molded human language and consciousness during the course of evolution and that its activities are powerfully connected to the development of the individual.

To capture the essence of his argument, he quotes the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, who wrote that "the hand speaks to the brain as surely as the brain speaks to the hand." You have to wonder, when the hand is clicking a mouse for a couple of hours, what does it have to say?

Not much of interest I would think. But music is something different. Learning to make music on traditional instruments, even in a limited, amateurish way, draws on body and mind together. They function in intimate communion, as they should. You can't make music without thinking and feeling and training your hands. The connection of muscle and motion to rhythm and melody is fundamental.

That's why I was predisposed to doubt the value - not for music, but for human development - of Mr. Machover's instruments. When asked whether there wasn't some value to the training in a traditional instrument in which motor skills, muscle memory, thinking, emotion and creativity all came into play, Mr. Machover said that he thought that traditional training for children gave very little room for creativity, which is what he was trying to provide.

"It's so difficult, physically to learn a traditional musical instrument," he said. "The smartest kids take a lot of time just to master the interface - to say nothing of creativity - before you're expressing something, and way before you're expressing something individual.

"I think that what I've tried to do in all this work is to emphasize creativity over virtuosity." Not that he is against traditional training. One of his daughters is learning the violin.

But, he said, if you could remove obstacles to musical creativity, why not? That's when I started feeling like a puritan. And it became clear that although Mr. Machover is not demanding skill, he is by no means ignoring the body.

The Beatbug is the size of a large orange with two antennas. By tapping on it you give it a rhythm it plays back through a small speaker. You then can modify that rhythm by pressing the two antennae with your fingers, and you can send the modified fragment back and forth wirelessly among a circle of people holding Beatbugs. Without any training someone can start participating in a jam session of sorts.

The Music Shapers are fabric balls with a tone of some sort programmed into them. By squeezing the shapers, you can modify the tone. You use your hands, you are tempted to move your body as you are doing so, and you experience the making of music as an act of the indivisible person, not a mental exercise on a keyboard.

"Everything that we do," Mr. Machover said, "has to feel like a musical activity and not a technological activity."

When I tried the Beatbugs and Music Shapers I felt a tactile surge of pleasure more than an intellectual one. The instruments are, of course, less demanding than traditional ones, and in the end might be less enriching. But they are not designed as ends. They are designed to offer the pleasure of music before the pain of making fingers do unheard of things.

Who really knows what's going on when the muscles are being trained? Perhaps, if children's hands are speaking to their brains during violin practice, they are shouting: "Help! Get me out of here!"

I don't know what they're saying when they play with Beatbugs and Music Shapers, but I'll bet they're laughing with pleasure.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company