With beatbugs and shapers, America’s ‘most wired composer’ pushes musical limits

June 17, 2011

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(Courtesy of Tod Machover)
Machover's beatbug is a percussive 'hyperinstrument' designed for kids and grown-ups alike.
(Flickr/Jean-Baptiste LaBrune)
Inventor/composer Tod Machover pushes the limits of musical creativity.

The Los Angeles Times once called Tod Machover America’s “most wired composer.” It’s a strange accolade, but an appropriate one.

The son of a pianist and a pioneer in the field of computer graphics, Machover started modifying, wiring, and experimenting with his instruments at an early age, and didn’t stop. Now Futurist author Raymond Kurzweil says Machover is “the only person I am aware of who contributes on a world-class level to both the technology of music creation and to music itself.”

A prime example: Machover’s quest to create hyperinstruments - instruments integrated with computers that enhance the user’s potential for musical expression and creativity.

Machover, who teaches at MIT's Media Lab, designed a modified hyper-cello for Yo-Yo Ma and musical mannequins for one of Prince’s European tours. But he’s also designed instruments for children. 

His Toy Symphony features instruments with the kind of adorable names you might find coming out of Playskool or Hasbro. There are beatbugs - percussion toys that look like little an insect crossed with a thumb piano; and shapers - plush, embroidered squeeze toys that hide complex circuitry.

These inventions are cute but they’re also serious business; Machover’s students and collaborators have gone on from these endeavors to create  some of the most successful music video games of all times.

When Machover spoke in Chicago recently he shared the story of how he created these spectacular hybrid instruments that push the limits of musical creativity. Amazingly, it all starts with Sgt. Pepper, and ends with Guitar Hero. You can hear his story in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Tod Machover spoke at an event presented by Chicago Opera Theater in March. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.