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Tod Machover's Toronto Symphony an unusual experiment in collaborative composition

By John Terauds on June 16, 2012

A portion of composer Tod Machover’s visualization of the shape of A Toronto Symphony, to be premiered at next season’s New Creations festival.

In early March, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra announced that it had commissioned Boston-based composer, teacher and inventor Tod Machover to write A Toronto Symphony for its 2013 New Creations festival. The announcement came with an invitation to people of the city to begin thinking about what Toronto sounds like, and these sounds could become part of the new work.

Machover was back in town this week to speak at Ideacity, to meet with members of Toronto’s arts community and to report on progress to his patron, the TSO. What was an amorphous wish list three months ago is beginning to take on some shape and contour.

At this point, the most interesting aspect of this project is its collaborative nature. Composers, like other creative artists, rarely want to be told what to do. They want to be left alone to fashion their work which, when finished and rehearsed, will hopefully please its audience.

From the very beginning, Machover has insisted that he wants his audience, and even people who might never be his audience, to become part of his creative process.

And based on the results of an early experiment, he has added and embraced the roles of collaborator and facilitator without qualms.

It stands to reason that any work of art needs some basic parameters, such as the visual artist’s choice of media and scale. So Machover has mapped out the trajectory of a piece he imagines running about 25 minutes. This progression is divided into eight seamless segments sourced from a three-part mix of sound ideas: those supplied by us, those imagined by Machover and those that blend the two.

Here is the musical progression, in its current form:
City Sounds
City Stories
Imagining the City
City Soaring
Toronto Dances
The City Sleeps

Here is a fascinating example of the many different dimensions our environment has. Here is a city heard at specific points in time (like standing on a corner while a streetcar screeches around a turn) as well as in transit (like overhearing 10 seconds of Farsipop from the speakers inside a passing car). Here also is a city experienced at street level (call it the trees) as well as from the top of the CD Tower (the forest).

Tod Machover

Machover, who says he has never tried creating a piece of music this way before, has done his first practical experiment with input from a group of eight TSO musicians.

The composer came up with 44 measures of chord progressions, which he then presented to his TSO volunteers, who all play instruments that produce a single line of sound. He asked them to embellish on this structure. The four submissions Machover showed yesterday ranged from simple harmonic additions to complex musical figures for bassoon seemingly at odds with his framework (much of it complex tone clusters rather than a succession of common major/minor/augmented/diminished chords).

“Can you actually play that?” a laughing Machover recalls of his response to the piece of manuscript.

“This is not the kind of stuff I normally write,” the composer admits. “But I worked with it, and incorporated it into my piece. I actually enjoyed the process and am happy with the way it turned out.”

Machover’s Ideacity audience had a chance to hear the results, which may or may not be part of the much, much larger finished work. But along the way, the composer was able to prove to himself, as well as key witnesses, that weaving other people’s ideas into a meaningful whole is possible.

Sean Williams, a doctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh, is one of a growing number of people around the world experimenting with collaborative creation. In a blog he has kept on a collaborative electronic music project, Williams expresses how the key to collaborative success is that “group rules should always be flexible.”

“Each rule change and re-iteration of the trial-discussion-rework methodology opened new ways to progress the concept and it didn’t make us change remarkably our aesthetic goals,” Williams writes.

Machover appears to have made the same realisation.

His current sketch for A Toronto Symphony begins and ends in relative quiet, insinuating its way into the listener’s experience. It is typical of other pieces of Machover’s I have heard. So I asked him how about the effectiveness of a whispered start to the music of and about a noisy, big city as opposed to opening with a big, crashing, listen-to-me-now flourish.

I was expecting a well-articulated justification of this aesthetic choice. Instead, Machover blinked, smiled, said he’ll have to think about it, and made a note in the little black sketchbook that is never far from his side.

He really is keeping an open mind.

To make this exercise work, Machover needs as much input as possible from all Torontonians, be they recordings or suggestions of typical Toronto sounds — played, spoken or overheard (he says a small team of people will go out later in the summer to make field recordings, as needed).

Each one of us can be part of this community experiment — and you’ll find all the details here.

Here’s a video description of the project — a version of which will be shown at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s free, outdoor Luminato closing concert in David Pecaut Square on Sunday at 7 p.m. (a concert that includes a new work by Philip Glass, written specifically for the occasion):

John Terauds

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