Near the end of Tod Machover’s 1987 opera “VALIS,” a “wild-looking” composer named Mini performs an unusual solo piece on an artificially intelligent instrument. “Mini appears to be sculpting sounds, setting off musical structures with the flick of his hand — he seems to be playing the orchestra of the future,” reads the libretto, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1981 novel of the same name.
During the opera’s initial performances starting in 1987, Mini was portrayed by Machover himself, who also devised the concept of “hyperinstruments” for the opera: electronic instruments that can tell what and how someone is playing, and embellish it. “It adds things to the performance, as layers,” said Machover in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. For example, “it could be that I’m playing a monophonic line and it gets orchestrated.”