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Robots and Opera: 'Death and the Powers' and the Intersection of Art and Science

This April, the Chicago Opera Theater will present the Midwest premiere of Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers, a new opera that puts robotics and new technologies center stage. The opera raises interesting questions about the intersection of art, science, and technology. How can these seemingly disparate fields work together to produce new and exciting products in each domain?

Join Tod Machover, professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab and composer of Death and the Powers, and Malcolm MacIver, associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, for a panel discussion* moderated by Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering.

Wednesday, March 2
4 p.m.
ITW Classroom, Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center

About Death and the Powers
Death and the Powers is a new opera by composer Tod Machover and developed at the MIT Media Lab, in collaboration with Chicago Opera Theater and the American Repertory Theater. It is a one-act, full evening work that tells the story of Simon Powers, a successful and powerful businessman and inventor, who wants to go beyond the bounds of humanity. Reaching the end of his life, Powers faces the question of his legacy: “When I die, what remains? What will I leave behind? What can I control? What can I perpetuate?” He is now conducting the last experiment of his life, passing from one form of existence to another in an effort to project himself into the future. Whether or not he is actually alive is a question. Simon Powers is himself now a system. His family, friends and associates must decide what this means, how it affects them, and whether to follow.

New performance technologies for Death and the Powers have been developed at the MIT Media Lab, including a new technique of Disembodied Performance to translate Simon’s offstage performance into an expressively animated stage. Other novel “instruments” include a Musical Chandelier and a chorus of robots.

Watch a video excerpt of the performance.

About the Panelists
- Tod Machover has been called "America's most wired composer" by the Los Angeles Times. He is celebrated for inventing new technology for music, including Hyperinstruments, which he launched in 1986. Machover studied with Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions at The Juilliard School and was the first director of musical research at Pierre Boulez's IRCAM in Paris. He has been professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab since it was founded in 1985, and is director of the lab's Hyperinstruments and Opera of the Future Groups. Since 2006, Machover has also been visiting professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Machover's compositions have been commissioned and performed by many of the world's most prestigious ensembles and soloists, including the Ensemble InterContemporain, the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, Speculum Musicae, BBC Scottish Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Pops, Houston Grand Opera, Bunkamura (Tokyo), Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Carnegie Hall, Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Collage New Music, Speculum Musicae, Ars Electronica, Casa da Musica (Porto), American Composers Orchestra, Tokyo String Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Ying Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Kim Kashkahian, David Starobin, Matt Haimovitz, and many more. His work has been awarded numerous prizes and honors, among others from from the Fromm and Koussevitzky Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, the German Culture Ministry, and the French Culture Ministry, which named him a Chevalier de l'Order des Arts et des Lettres. In 2007 he was awarded the Steinmetz Prize from the IEEE.

- Malcolm MacIver studies the neural and biomechanical basis of animal intelligence. His laboratory pursues its questions using a remarkable fish from the Amazon, which hunts in the dark using a very weak electric field as a type of underwater sonar. In his multidisciplinary analysis, he uses three approaches: mechanics and robotics for understanding the ways the body contributes to adaptive behavior; neurobiology for understanding the body’s control system; and computational modeling, for constructing supercomputer simulations of the body and nervous system. Some of MacIver’s work on making artificial versions of how the fish senses with electric fields and swims with its unique propulsion system is being further developed for commercial application.

He is very involved in bringing research to the general public. MacIver’s efforts include working as a technical script consultant for the upcoming movie “Tron Legacy,” Joss Whedon’s movie “The Avengers” (2012) and “Caprica,” a science-fiction drama on the Syfy channel. He also creates science-inspired interactive art installations, including an exhibit this November at the STRP Festival in Eindhoven, Holland, and “Body Electric” at the Williamson Gallery in Pasadena in 2003. MacIver writes about artificial intelligence and robotics for Discover magazine’s blog “Science Not Fiction.” He is a member of numerous professional organizations, including the Society for Neuroscience and the American Physical Society.

- Julio M. Ottino is the dean of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Northwestern University where he holds the titles of Distinguished Robert R. McCormick Institute Professor and Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Ottino’s current research is focused on complex systems and has been featured in articles and on the covers of Nature, Science, Scientific American, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. He was a senior advisor to Unilever and a member of the Technical Advisory Board of Dow Chemical.  Ottino has chaired committees for National Research Council, the National Science Foundation, and the National Academy of Engineering, and was a member of the International Review of Engineering in the United Kingdom.

Ottino is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a recipient of the Fluid Dynamics Prize from the American Physical Society, where he is also a Fellow. In 2008 he was selected by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers as one of the “One Hundred Engineers of the Modern Era.” He is also an artist; visit his website to learn more about Ottino's research and art.

* Due to unforeseen circumstances, Chicago Opera Theater general director Brian Dickie will no longer be able to attend the panel.