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Interview: New Toronto Symphony should be 'something sustaining, surprising and enriching'

By John Terauds on March 2, 2012

Boston-based composer Tod Machover

When it unveiled its 2012-13 season a month ago, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra announced that Tod Machover, curator of next year’s New Creations festival, has been commissioned to write a new work for the occasion, to be called the Toronto Symphony — not in honour of the orchestra, but in honour of a collaborative process that is supposed to involve the whole city

Last night at Roy Thomson Hall, TSO music director Peter Oundjian introduced Machover on stage, and announced the official start of the composition process, which is supposed to include anyone and everyone in Toronto.

Both Oundjian and Machover spoke in vague terms last night, referring people to a new website dedicated to the new symphony. So far, it, too, is equally vague about what all this is about, while offering people the opportunity to sign up for further news and invitations to participate in the creative process.

I have to admit that I was put off that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra had chosen a Bostonian to write a symphony about our city. Eager to know what all this talk of collaboration is about, I sat down with the composer today.

Machover, eyes sparkling with keen intelligence, explained that this whole thing was not the TSO’s idea, but his own.

As he tells it, the orchestra offered a commission for a new symphonic piece. “I could have said sure, and written something, and that would be that,” says Machover. “But they asked me what I thought would be most interesting to do with an open-minded orchestra.”

Machover, who works at the Media Lab at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology as well as being an active and respected instrumental and opera composer, has specialized in enhancing both sound and process with the latest electronic technology.

He has come up with a number of interesting e-tools with which children can interact to create their own music, and has been keeping his eyes and ears open for all sorts of ways in which to connect people with music in an active, rather than passive, way.

So what Machover wants to do, in essence, is to get Torontonians to become composers as well, offering input about larger structural issues as well as contributing to smaller details.

What does this mean? Machover has no idea. He is loath to impose too much structure on the project so early in the process, because he doesn’t want to stifle a potential “wow” moment.

In essence, Machover is proposing that the city and its flagship symphony orchestra put its faith in crowdsourcing, the currently fashionable form of collective thinking and labouring in the online world.

“I want the result to be something sustaining, surprising and enriching,” he says.

The key is to get involved and start thinking about what the shape of Toronto rendered in symphonic music could be. To sign up, click here.

In the course of our conversation, Machover revealed that he is better acquainted with Toronto than I thought. As a young cellist, he played with the Canadian Opera Company’s long-departed touring troupe. He even remembered that the conductor was Errol Gay, who has deep roots in the city’s musical life.

John Terauds

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