Tod Machover’s first opera, VALIS, garnered rave reviews at its 1987 Paris Premiere. The CD — still available on Bridge Records — earned a “Best of the Year” from The New York Times. Thirty years later, a brand-new Jay Scheib production, starring Davóne Tines and Anaïs Reno, debuts at the MIT Theater Arts Performance Space (345 Vassar Street, Cambridge) on September 8th and 9th at 7:30 pm and on the 10th, at 3:00 pm. MIT Theater Arts Performance Space, 345 Vassar Street, Free tickets are HERE. For more on the production click HERE.
“Based on the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, VALIS is perhaps even more relevant today—in a world coming to grips with “deep fakes” and the rapid development of AI technology—than when it was first presented. It tells the story of Horselover Fat—the author’s alter ego—who has a devastating-yet-enlightening “pink light” experience. Fat explores the blurred boundaries between reality and AI technology and considers the possibility of hope in a world where all knowledge is available but little of it is verifiable.” The soprano from 1987, our own Anne Azéma, joined me in interviewing Tod Machover.
Lee Eiseman: Tod, did you write the part of Sophia for our Anne Azéma?
Tod Machover: I found the Philip K. Dick novel by chance in a Paris bookstore when searching for a text with a subject related to technology and humanity. VALIS jumped off the shelf, and I got even more than what I bargained for.
Anne Azéma: We met at French Cultural Attaché Véronique Marteau’s. And you were already at work on VALIS, because when I came in, and you said, “Sophia!” And I thought—this guy is really a little off.
TM: Sophia’s a child who might be an angel, who might be a hologram, who might be real, so it has to be played by a performer who is extraordinary, the being that you’ve been waiting for to provide answers and to provide confidence in yourself as well as warmth and connection…
Sophia is the answer to this poor guy Horselover Fat, who’s the alter ego of the author, Philip K. Dick, who actually did have a major breakdown in 1974 and then spent his final eight years trying to figure out: Was it a nervous breakdown? Was a drug relapse? Was it some mystical experience? Was it some confrontation with advanced technology? What is the difference between technology that is so complex that we can’t understand it, really, and mysticism or extreme psychology? Sophia is the final step in Fat’s journey.
Sophia has one of the central arias of the opera, and then comes a majestic, complex Finale, a kind of passacaglia that just builds and builds. Characters repeat their core “truths” with Fat starting by stating “I’m not afraid!” At first profoundly reassuring, after many repetitions we see that he is trying to convince himself and then all just flies out of control and Sophia disappears, leaving Fat back alone . . . but watching TV with a conviction to “wait” and to “keep his commission.”
LE: I’m getting a picture of Beatrice and Dante on the Ponte Vecchio.
TM: Well, it’s something like that; they saw each other, and then it was Dante’s revelation, and she helped him realize his vision, even from a distance. When I met Anne, I immediately loved her voice – the Early Music perfection and beauty of it – and also thought that she just looked like the Sophia that I had imagined. She seemed like a total natural for the part and – lucky for me, and for our audiences – she accepted!
LE: And she looked like the Beloved Damozel of Rossetti. [see below!]
AA: Tod, you’re a cellist, right? What pushed you to really cultivate your compositional skills for opera?
TM: My mom was a pianist, and my dad was a computer guy, and we listened to everything at home except opera. [LAUGHTER] I am a cellist, so I always had a deep love of melodic writing and melodic listening and played a lot of chamber music growing up. I also love powerful, Bach-or-Beatles-type bass lines, and amplified my cello and had a rock band in high school. But melody has always come first for me. And with that I have always loved words and am quite a voracious reader (which you can see by the piles of very diverse titles around my house). So I’ve always written vocal music, from when I started composing in high school. And I realized more and more that all my pieces, whether they have words or don’t have words, are always dramatic journeys involving some story of human transformation. If it’s an instrumental piece, the journey is implicit and must be imagined by the listener. But I eventually got interested in trying to invent my own form of opera where stories and explicit situations could help guide listeners on the musical journeys I was imagining.
VALIS became an opportunity to make an opera with no preconceptions. I decided to make this Pompidou-commissioned project in their giant entrance hall. So we built a theater from scratch where there wasn’t one. And it was a place where lots of people could watch it from above and different from angles. They could see it being installed. I decided that I wanted almost no scenery and just wanted everything shown through computer imaging. We had many, many monitors that were all synchronized. They were either in towers or big walls, which represented the internal world of Horselover Fat.
I figured out who the characters were, and then we cast it from really different worlds. There were some new music singers who played the Lamptons (a rock duo). The woman who sang Gloria was on her way to be an opera singer. In the première, the main singer was a young rock musician. And of course, Anne came from early music. I really wanted Sophia to have an incredibly pure, simple, affecting voice. It told a science fiction story, which isn’t a typical operatic plot. I wanted to make explicit the feeling of taking people on my own journey.
AA: To create a libretto on this Philip K Dick sci-fi story, with cross references for opera people and plenty of entry points for the public at large, that was brilliant.
There’s another question regarding VALIS that burns my lips: how did the young composer who was working closely with Pierre Boulez, develop a language that couldn’t be more different from Boulez. You had these long lyrical lines, this clarity. Your music can be comprehensible to the man who walks in the street – and that was the case, actually. I remember people walking through the Pompidou Centre and staying on and listening to our work. How was such a young composer able to make his mark, and find his way in that very specific, somewhat contrived and constrained milieu?
TM: I’ve always wanted to write music that is rich and complex and layered and deserves many listenings, but also is direct and communicative and can appeal to anybody. It’s not the easiest thing to put together.
I grew up with all kinds of music, from classical to modern experimental, from free jazz to Elizabethan vocal. I went to Julliard and studied with Elliott Carter before working with Boulez. I do enjoy music which has layers and complexity and may not always be immediately apprehensible.
In my first year with Boulez in Paris (where I was first invited for a one year stint, but ended up staying 7 years) I was a kind of guinea pig, trying out – and helping to shape – all of the new computer music developments at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music). Then Boulez asked me to become director of music research for IRCAM, so I ended up running a lot of the stuff happening there. I absorbed and participated in European avant-garde culture while also longing for the melodies, rhythms, and Ives-like textural complexities that I had left back in the U.S.
It’s interesting because the author Philip K. Dick experienced a similar tension in what to write about and who to write it for. Dick started out writing realistic fiction about American society in the ‘50s – and amazing books – but nobody bought them. And then he started writing science fiction – at first for pulp mags – with much more success. But he spent his career trying to write both. And in some ways, “Valis” was his attempt to combine these worlds. It’s half the realistic life of Horselover Fat, half the science fiction world of Fat’s search for the truth behind the surface of reality. And similarly when I was at IRCAM, when I was in my 20s, I was really trying to bring diverse worlds together. And of course, in France and in the Boulez world – which I do deeply respect on many levels – there was no tonality, there was no driving rhythm, and there was no room for artistic synthesis; everybody had to have an artistically “pure” ideology. It was very rigid. It wasn’t me.
I love France. I love Europe. It’s half of me. [LAUGHTER] But after seven years, and by the time I got around to VALIS I realized how very American I was, and how I really wanted to come back to the States. VALIS indeed has many different musical languages in it, and took some artistic concentration on my part to find a way for these to come together in a powerful way, to become more than the sum of parts. I just had to do this to satisfy my own inner artistic integrity. But the new music purists in Paris and elsewhere in the end of the ‘80s were really surprised when Valis came out. It was the subject of much discussion and controversy. On the other hand, it seemed like a refreshing opening to a new world for many others.
LE: It’s more rock than Darmstadt?
TM: Well, hearing it now, it’s a mix. The first part doesn’t necessarily have any real Darmstadt, but it has a lot of complex writing and is quite intricately composed using quite a wide harmonic palette. Wagner’s Parsifal is woven through the book – as an analogy to Fat’s journey through pain and loss to revelation and restoration – and it’s woven throughout the opera as well. And then there’s this weird rock music that I wrote, which no rock singer could really manage. And I still feel very close to this musical language now. I’ve written a whole lot of music since Valis, but I’ve really wanted to bring this piece back because I’ve always felt close to it, and think that there is something rich, authentic, and kind of special about the piece that I really wanted to share with current and future audiences.
I had mentioned revving VALIS several times to the stage director Jay Scheib, who’s the head of theater at MIT. He did a radical Parsifal at Bayreuth this summer. He also did a musical based on the heavy metal musician Meat Loaf, which played in New York and London. Jay has a same eclectic background to mine, so when he approached me a couple of years ago to see if I wanted to work together on a new production of Valis, I immediately said YES!
Since it had been a long time ago since we did a live performance of the full opera, I couldn’t find a definitive version of the score or parts, so did a lot of “archaeological” work to reconstruct and revise the whole thing, then hired a music copyist in London to make a definitive version of the piece. Even more work had to be done to reconstruct and reinvent the technology needed to perform VALIS, since it was all designed especially for this opera and was – I think – quite ahead of its time.
AA: So did you change anything?
TM: I did make a variety of changes, but I’m sure you’ll absolutely recognize it. I did a lot of orchestration changes. I updated the electronics, and interactive systems which used state-of-the-art technology in the late 80s, none of which worked anymore. When I first started relistening to it VALIS a couple of years ago, some of the electronics sound a little dated, but I also thought that a lot of it is still terrific, so I carefully preserved what I loved and tweaked and layered things in other parts. And then a big change in this production the nature of AI that seems to be behind the breakdown that Horselove Fat experiences. He has a flood of revelations wherein Ancient Rome and present pay LA are superimposed. Huge amounts of religious information,from early Christianity spin in his head. It’s an enlightenment, in a way. Crazy details about liturgy and how the universe is put together mix with AI theory, imagined before AI was really formulated. It’s very visionary as to the future of machines, but much of this vision is reality right now, and we are constantly confronted with the decision of what is real and what isn’t. We had to show this in a new way.
The book refers to a group of musicians in Northern California who are writing songs based on the almost-gibberish that Horselover Fat is writing about in his “exegesis.” His friends tell him he should go find the Lamptons to see what they are singing/writing about. All of a sudden in the opera you’re with these rock musicians. There is a character named Mini who is behind the music of the Lamptons, described as a kind of Brian Eno-like producer, computer music composer. Mini is supposed to be a cripple who’s making this music and embedding these messages. In all the previous productions of VALIS I have conducted, and then emerged on stage to perform a new kind of AI music, created in a magical way; the Sophia character emerges – is created – out of this music. In the late 80s, we had to simulate this kind of “active, living, intelligent” music (VALIS stands for “Vast Active Living Intelligent System”), but now we have been able to create it. Mini’s Solo emerges from a real AI system developed with my team at the MIT Media Lab. And instead of performing that myself, Mini will be played by a young researcher in my group – Nina Masuelli – who helped develop a special new interface – we call it “The Jar” – that she uses to explore, to shape, and to coax beautiful sounds out of the AI. This section is especially powerful, in my view, because it is real.
These new AI systems can infer a lot of things about what’s going on without your telling it explicitly. It can conclude that one moment is becoming emotionally richer, while another is calming down. We’re using it for Mini exactly in that way. It’s as if the system that comes alive, and the Mini character, instead of performing it, is exploring it. Being surprised by it. This feels like a really new world.
AA: Is this new Mini- AI going to replace Machover?
TM: I’m trying to get the message out that AI systems are getting good enough to produce creative surprises, which could reveal something unusual in your imaginative world that might open your mind and lead you an artistic discovery. They’re interesting creative partners for both experienced artists and – actually – for anyone else as well. It’s quite possible that over the next five years we can make them easier to shape so that they could become a useful assistant while you’re working. You want these systems to be helping someone be more creative, rather than making up music all on their own. Machines will never care deeply about why one thing is worth expressing more than another. That human motivation must come from us.
LE: Or to eliminate the performer and just let the composer communicate directly?
TM: There might be some interest in giving composers a more direct way of communicating with listeners, but there is always an advantage to having multiple voices and personalities working together to shape something richer than what a single person could do alone. In some ways, AI systems might make it possible for people to collaborate on massive scales, which is something that we are exploring in our City Symphony series (and we are actually working on a “World Symphony” right now, to premiere in 2025).
LE: Can you explain how VALIS actually sounds? The “orchestra” is just two people playing hyper instruments?
TM: It doesn’t sound exactly like a full traditional orchestra, because I shied away from electronic imitations of real instruments in this piece, preferring to develop new sounds. But it usually has a lots of layers—a lot of them electronic, some acoustic, some voice-based. There is some flute and some violin and some cello. It will sound similar to the 1990 CD, though it will be richer and fuller now, and remarkably “present” because of the virtuosity of the singers and instrumentalists. This cast of performers is truly amazing
AA: Where do you stand now as far as the role of the staging, the lights, and so forth?
TM: The set just went into the theater today, so I can’t comment fully, but Jay Sheib is incredibly good at characterization, at bringing out the inner life and motivation of each person in the story. Each character will feel fully realized, and everybody has a fair amount of movement, some directed at the audience and some directed at live video cameras on stage which will add extra perspective to the performances. And just as the book/opera represents the main character as a kind of double – the author Philip K. Dick and his alter-ego Horselover Fat -Jay has doubled many of the other characters as well, so that you see different sides of them and so that their dramatic resonance spreads throughout the opera. So actually, Sophia doesn’t only appear at the end, you also see her in the first part. She actually does some of the narration. And she comes back in the dreams as if materializing from Fat’s mind. When Sophia is finally the Sophia, there’s been a transformation of that character. One Gloria does most of the singing, while another does a lot of the movement. You see Gloria’s suicide ricocheting throughout the opera. It’s as if all of the characters emerge from Horselover Fat’s mind, which in a way they do. All of these layers come together in the majestic passacaglia to Part II (the opera is in two parts, played without intermission), only to disappear again, leaving Fat to watch TV, waiting for his “commission.”
LE: Are the characters going to be simultaneously on stage and also represented by projections?
TM: Jay is one of the first directors who started using live video on stage. In these simultaneous worlds, one wonders what’s true and what isn’t. Is it live? Is it prerecorded? Oh, that person’s standing right there, so I know they’re doing that. Jay’s a virtuoso at that. No part of the stage is hidden. I find this incredibly interesting and very relevant for VALIS. The stage has got a V, like Valis, two walls that meet almost in the center. There’s a big cloud that gets projected on. The surface of the walls get projected on. So just like how the characters spill out of their arias, the projections also spill out of being on a monitor or out of a screen. Sometimes they’re on a monitor. Sometimes they’re things prepared ahead of time. Sometimes they’re being filmed live. Sometimes they are in a little box. Sometimes they are everywhere.
LE: Who invented the first hyper instrument?
AA: You’re talking to him!
LE: No. No, you’re off by 50 years!
TM: [LAUGHTER] Well, we coined the term…
LE: You coined the term, maybe, but John Hayes Hammond, who built Hammond Castle and wrapped it around a huge a pipe organ, placed microphones and speakers within the chambers, so he could go beyond the expression of swell shades that opened and closed; he could use amplified sounds of individual stops, which he could control with additional pedals to dynamically expand the tonal range of the instrument.
TM: Cool! I know a fair amount about the history of music technology, but not much about Hammond; I will study up. Hammond may have been one of the first to mechanically enhance a performance instrument, but the world is different now because of the ability to capture vast amounts of information from a performance, and then to analyze that data with smart computers. AI makes this immediate interpretation even more powerful. You can see this kind of potential in the hypercello that we designed for for Yo-Yo Ma, for which sensors can tell where the bow is or where the left hand is, what the nuances of tone or the changing facial expressions might be. Hyperinstruments can conclude that one moment is becoming emotionally richer, while another is calming down, and these analyses can make significant changes to how the instruments sounds and behaves, all controlled immediately and – hopefully – intuitively.
LE: I’d like to close by asking you why K. Robert Schwartz in the NY Times compared your VALIS to Tommy the rock opera by the Who.
TM: Most people who compared it to Tommy, were – I think – doing so in a really complimentary way, implying there’s a freshness to this, and it’s telling a story in a different way. Tommy actually had a narrative unlike any previous rock album, but it was done in a really interesting way. The songs told the story and then they were connected.
LE: There was no dialogue at all, and it was through-composed.
TM: It was through-composed, and I think people saw this and thought well, VALIS definitely doesn’t sound like Puccini, and it’s got this electric sound to it, and it’s got some rock in it – it was the only reference they could think of. Even today, VALIS doesn’t really sound like any other piece. If it makes people think of Tommy, there’s also Parsifal, and Boulez. Looking back, it just sounds like my music. My music might sound more electric or more this or that, but the way I write melodies, the way I put things together to build continuity and achieve synthesis, the harmonies that I use that hover near tonality but are often ambiguous, the bass lines that anchor things (somewhat Bach-like), the combination of rhythmic punch and sensuous textures – well, I don’t think this sounds like anyone else’s music, for better or worse.
AA: You write fine music, Tod, and your creations leave strong impressions. That’s why we’re here talking about it! I remember when I entered a rehearsal of a program of French Baroque music after we had done one of the VALIS performances here in the US, and the first violin (on period instrument) came to me and whispered in my ear the Slippers Song, and I thought, gee, VALIS is even bigger than I thought, moving so many folks of such different wakes. For me as a singer, creating Sophia was a landmark, but also for me as an opera lover. To see it live again, changing and evolving is exciting. I expect that it will continue to be seen as a landmark.