Style and Idea: Schoenberg and the Media Lab


Peter Torpey

Peter Torpey

Tod Machover has spent a lot of time in Arnold Schoenberg’s head over the last year, as he’s immersed himself in the famed composer’s life and works in the process of creating Schoenberg in Hollywood. We asked him, How would Schoenberg have fit in at the Media Lab? What would his group name have been?

As an intellect and creator, Schoenberg would have fit right into the Lab. He was a self-taught polymorph who never earned a degree from any academic or musical institution, but became the top composition professor at the renowned Berlin Conservatory of Music (before being expelled immediately after Hitler came to power). He was extremely knowledgeable about musical tradition, but wrote his own music from first principles, i.e. recreating language and feel from scratch for each new work. This led him to completely change the course of music history by abandoning all the traditional rules of Western music to invent 12-tone music, where each sound became independent or “relative,” an idea developed in parallel with Einstein’s discoveries. He invented not only music but also all kinds of stuff, like a new notation system for tennis games (designed to annotate his son’s expert playing), contraptions to draw his own customized music manuscript paper, a curriculum to train movie composers in a purely sonic art, a painting technique to allow him to depict his inner mental state rather than outside physical features in a series of self-portraits, etc.

He was indeed one of the inaugural members of the Bauhaus, and was extremely interested in multisensory expression and perception. However, he didn’t stay long at the Bauhaus, and was always a somewhat solitary creator: he wrote his own texts, designed his own scenery, developed his own extensive teaching materials, etc. So I’m not sure how collaborative he would have been on large-scale projects, or how happy he would have been to give demos of his new ideas to people from widely different backgrounds.

“Style and Idea” (the title of his most famous collection of essays) would have been a great name for his Media Lab group. Schoenberg had a lifelong fascination with the relationship and tension between the uncompromising, long-term search for truth (the idea) and the necessity to express that truth in forms that could be communicated. This dialectic is core to Media Lab culture, and Schoenberg would have had much to contribute to our ongoing investigations.

Schoenberg in Hollywood is playing at Boston’s Emerson Paramount Theater through November 18. An accompanying exhibition on Schoenberg in the Media Lab’s lobby is open to the public through April 30.

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