Composer-in-residence Tod Machover on Fensadense, the new project of LUCERNE FESTIVAL Young Performance

Rehearsal for Fensadense (photo: Stefan Deuber)

Rehearsal for Fensadense (photo: Stefan Deuber)

Sitting still and dutifully playing from the score was the practice of yesterday. LUCERNE FESTIVAL Young Performance presents a scenic music spectacle that “translates” sounds into images and movement. Founded last year as the Festival’s very own production facility for new concert forms, LUCERNE FESTIVAL Young Performance has not only inspired audiences but also won the renowned “Young Ears Award.” Now comes the second round. The new project Fensadense unites selected alumni of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY with composer-in-residence Tod Machover.

Tod Machover, how would you explain the actual significance of the title Fensadense?
I knew that I wanted an unusual title for this piece and project to reflect the unusual music and methodology that we wanted to present. As it happens, the title comes from a discussion I had at dinner with one of my students from the MIT Media Lab. He was saying that his sister – who is now a brilliant scholar at an Ivy League University – was very slow to speak when she was a child, and when she did speak, she tended to make up her own words; the family learned to understand them. I asked him what some of these words were, and he gave me a whole list, each of them sounding exotic and strange, and definitely not English! Then he said that his favorite word was the name that she gave to one of her dolls, “Fensadense.” As soon as he said it, I realized how much I liked this word, since it seems to combine so many feelings: the constraint of a fence with the freedom of dancing, the density of – well – “dense” with the bounciness of saying the word. It stuck in my mind and came out again when I was trying to think of the title of this new piece. The word seemed to embody the spirit I was searching for the piece itself: something fresh and new, strange yet familiar, energetic and dance-like but also intricate and a bit twisted. I liked the fact that my music and our concert would in fact be in a position to give a definition to this strange word, so that’s why I picked Fensadense for the title. Now I can’t imagine the music being called anything else!

In many of your works, including in Fensadense, you augment and enhance the instrumental sound by means of live electronics. Why? Or, to ask this another way: could you give two sentences explaining what “hyperinstruments” are?
In a way, it all goes back to The Beatles. When I was 13 years old, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was released. I had pretty much listened to and played only classical music until then, but hearing that music was like putting my finger in an electricity outlet. Two things impressed and shocked me: first, that The Beatles created a totally new sound by combining voices and instruments with electronic and natural sounds, all blended perfectly (with the help of George Martin) in a multitrack recording studio; and second, that this music was imagined as a studio album, never intended – not even possible – to play live. The beauty and immediacy of the music woke me up, but the fact that it was studio-only disturbed me. I vowed to find a way to have the best of both worlds: the precision and complexity of the recording studio with the immediacy and gestuality of live performance.

Tod Machover (Foto: Priska Ketterer/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

Tod Machover (photo: Priska Ketterer)

That conviction grew into Hyperinstruments, which I first invented in 1986. The idea since then has been to build technologies that let the instrument understand what is being played, and how and why (i.e. what is the expression, what is the intention?), so that it can use that information to automatically extend the musician’s performance, changing sonority, adding layers, mashing up or mixing down. This all happens naturally and intuitively without any sensation that a machine – or a middle-man – is involved. With my team at the MIT Media Lab, I have designed these Hyperinstruments for virtuosi like Yo-Yo Ma and Prince, but also for videogames such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band (which grew out of my Lab) and for children, seniors, and for people with mental and physical disabilities. For the first time in Fensadense, we are designing Hyperinstruments that measure not only the individual expression of each musician, but also the relationship between each musician, so that the degree of “togetherness” of the ensemble of 10 players determines how the music sounds – and looks – to the audience.

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