The Future of AI in Opera: Staging Tod Machover’s “VALIS”
In the mid-1980s, composer Tod Machover stumbled upon Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel “VALIS” and was captivated by its concept of a “vast active living intelligence system.” Inspired by this mystic vision, Machover decided to create an opera based on the novel, which premiered at the Pompidou Center in 1987 and has recently been restaged at MIT.
Machover, then the director of musical research at the renowned French Institute IRCAM, was given the opportunity to create a new piece for the Pompidou’s 10th anniversary. With an elaborate theater constructed inside the center’s entrance hall, Machover pushed the boundaries of music technology by using personal computers, MIDI, and the DX7 to explore the possibilities of digital sound and intelligent interaction.
To achieve the desired complexity, Machover assembled a unique orchestra consisting of only a keyboardist and a percussionist. This innovative approach was met with both praise and controversy when “VALIS” premiered. Audiences were amazed by the combination of melody, harmonies, and driving rhythms, which challenged the norms of contemporary music.
“VALIS” blurred the lines between acoustic and electric, orchestra and rock band, creating a unique fusion of musical styles. Machover, who draws inspiration from various genres and technologies, embraces this hybrid approach to create new compositions.
In Dick’s novel, written before the term artificial intelligence gained popularity, he explored the concept of a grand unifying theory that connected different ideas. This idea fascinated Machover, who saw parallels between Dick’s vision and the potential of AI in our world.
After over 30 years, “VALIS” has been restaged at MIT with a production that showcases the advancements in AI and technology. The opera incorporates AI-enhanced technologies developed by the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. These technologies allow for real-time music creation and control, enhancing the overall performance.
The creative team behind the production collaborated with theater director Jay Scheib, who specializes in augmented reality theater productions. Through the use of camera feeds, projections, and innovative set designs, the production creates a disorienting and immersive experience for the audience.
In a symbolic exchange, the character Mini interacts with a custom-built AI model, manipulating a plastic jar connected to the system to create unique music. This interaction reflects humanity’s ongoing exploration of machine intelligence and its potential.
As Machover and his team continue to push the boundaries of music and technology, they aim to create fresh and innovative performances that captivate audiences. By embracing AI and incorporating it into their compositions, they pave the way for a new era of music and art.
In conclusion, the restaging of “VALIS” provides a glimpse into the future of AI in opera. It showcases the potential of AI-enhanced technologies and their ability to enhance creativity and musical performances. This groundbreaking production pushes the boundaries of art and technology, inviting audiences to experience a unique and immersive journey.