Music: Hypermusic QEH, London

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The Independent Culture
My musical education began (and perhaps ended) with Uncle Mac's Children's Favourites, and I've always fancied Sparky's Magic Piano. Why can't I, like Sparky, simply sit down and play? The American composer Tod Machover may have the answer. Last Thursday, his South Bank concert introduced London to the "hyperinstruments" that he and his collaborators have invented at MIT's Media Lab. "Concert" may not be accurate. Lecture- demonstration might be better, or even, given Machover's ease with brand- names, sales pitch.

No, that's too harsh. Machover was an engaging explicator, even if things started badly. He announced this as the Music Shop of the Future, but his mike wasn't working. After that, technology behaved itself. There was the hypercello, invented for Yo-Yo Ma but looking like something Bo Diddley might play. Sensors attached to the player's wrists feed information to a computer which transforms it into a synthesised continuo. Then there's the musical chair which made Machover a conductor twice over. Gesticulating like a demented Karajan, he passed a current from the chair, via his backside, through his hands, to computer-linked, music-generating sensors. The choreographer Laurie Booth had created a dance piece to exploit the device and, donning what looked like a weight-lifter's truss, he gesticulated and writhed too, while the sensors sprayed noise. No doubt the idea will attract dancers, who can provide their own music and never miss a cue.

Machover presented the chair as something with which anyone could make music, but it's a moot point whether the music is made by the sitter, or by the programmer. The same goes for the digital baton, developed for Machover's ambitious Brain Opera, to be premiered in New York in June. This will involve audience interaction, both at the venue and via the Internet, and the digital baton will be a co-ordinating element. The hand holds an enlarged bulb containing sensors which the conductor controls, while also pointing the baton at an electronic eye which, once again, processes movement to produce sound (in one piece heard here, the voice of Lorraine Hunt, refashioned into unexpected shapes). The evening ended with Machover playing a suite for "hypercello and apparatus". As he sawed away, cello sounds emerged, but extended, amplified, distorted. And then Sparky's dream came true: to Machover's right sat a synclavier, unattended by any player, but suddenly spurting cascades of notes.

With filmed extracts from works by other composers, and a demonstration of the Chromasome (as heard in the recent London production of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) by its Dutch creator Walter Fabeck, the evening surveyed some astounding technological developments. The music rarely managed to throw off the familiar squishy synthesiser overlay, and much of it might, for all we could hear, have been pre-recorded. Yet Machover has a fertile imagination, and his Brain Opera genuinely promises to extend the musical sensorium. Here he invited us to assess potential, rather than actual achievements: the polite applause suggested that the audience had been made to think, rather than enjoy the music qua music. What we'd seen were entertaining doodles. The real music (and it could be Brain Opera) remains to be heard.

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