If you’re an established composer, and a major Canadian symphony comes calling to offer you a commission, in most cases the answer would be simple: yes.
Things then might typically follow along a standard path: You write the piece, the orchestra rehearses it and then performs the premiere. Your contact with the listeners might be limited to your program note, or maybe a pre-concert talk. You bow to the polite applause and try to feel grateful that the orchestra thought of you.
Tod Machover, the Boston-based composer and technologist, recently took a different approach when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra contacted him. He had big issues on his mind — about technology, the arts, and the future of collaboration. He wanted to write a symphony not for the city of Toronto but with the city of Toronto, a piece of music that would ultimately be about Toronto in a way that was granular, participatory, and reflective of an urban landscape in all of its component parts. He pitched an idea that would involve collecting recorded urban sounds and actual musical ideas from Torontonians of all stripes, to be forged by him into a hopefully coherent whole. The orchestra said: yes.
The final result, “A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City” will be premiered there on March 9, under the baton of music director Peter Oundjian.
The other day I visited Machover at his office in MIT’s Media Lab. The word “office,” however, doesn’t really do justice to this cyber-playground from the future. Looming large above an atrium space is a musical chandelier Machover built for his last major stage work, “Death and the Powers,” which also featured a chorus of robots and a protagonist who morphs into the scenery. On the afternoon I visited, Machover was in the final stages of composing “A Toronto Symphony.” It would be a sprint to the finish, he confessed. The actual collaborative portion of the work had become far more involved than he had anticipated, despite his having more experience in this area than most.
Machover put in time early in his career at the elite French electronic music laboratory known as IRCAM, but in recent years he has been on a quest to press technology into the service of a more democratic musical agenda, building instruments and software that allow essentially untrained amateurs to liberate their musical instincts, creating compositions on a computer the way a 4-year-old might “paint” with an iPad. He cites with approval the words of Glenn Gould from 1966, envisioning a utopian future in which technology made professional artistic specialization a thing of the past, or as Gould memorably put it, “the audience would be the artist and their life would be art.”
Beginning last year, Machover, with help from a team of graduate students, rolled out a suite of web applications customized for his Toronto project. One of them, called “Media Scores,” allows any user to play with the symphony’s finale, by bending time and adding various accompaniments. Another app, called “Constellation,” provides an array of musical gestures represented as stars in the night sky and enables a user to string together musical ideas by connecting them with lines. You can choose to build your constellation from Machover’s own chords, or — strangely addictive — use a set of submitted Toronto sounds, ranging from the noise of the beaches to the sounds of the subway to the street noise in Chinatown on a Sunday morning.
Machover quickly realized, however, that even the shiniest of web apps could not substitute for spending time in Toronto himself. He has since made many visits, meeting with student groups and teachers, youth orchestras, and urban outreach organizations. He even attended a Toronto indie rock festival called ALL CAPS!, where some 40 different bands, after playing their individual sets, each offered a gleefully jagged contribution, of one to five seconds in length, for “A Toronto Symphony.” (Machover plans on using them, he says, for “punctuation.”)
He has laid out the piece to be some 25 minutes in length, with a first movement built largely from materials submitted by Torontonians, a slow movement that’s essentially Machover’s own, and a dance-like finale that uses his ideas as a starting point but also incorporates ideas generated by the community.
The project raises all kinds of interesting issues. Artists outside the classical sphere have in recent years turned to the burgeoning DIY digital culture as a way of engaging with their fans. (Björk’s 2011 album “Biophilia,” for instance, was released as a series of apps that encouraged users to interact with and alter her material.) But while anyone with a laptop might now place an individual stamp on a song, these new versions seldom make their way back to the original artists. That’s where Machover’s template breaks new ground: by providing not just tools for collaborative creativity but also by setting up a feedback loop, and opportunities for real interaction, with a composer and a public.
That said, one could legitimately wonder whether it’s possible to have one’s cake and eat it too in this regard, to benefit from the results of community participation while still retaining the old-fashioned sense of individual artistic authorship. For Machover, purposefully blurring these lines has been the real challenge of this project, one that he says will ultimately determine how he regards the finished piece. “If it feels in the end like basically my piece no matter what, or like a mash-up of other people’s stuff that I facilitated, I think that would be less satisfying,” he told me. “But if it’s something that couldn’t have been made without each other, it will feel really good.”
Ultimately, “A Toronto Symphony” will be judged on March 6 not just for its collaborative process but, like any other premiere, on its own artistic terms. But you can also bet that far more people will feel invested in the outcome of this commission than might be the case with a typical premiere. In that sense, Machover’s model has enormous potential for public engagement around new music. It’s also a nice irony that the site for this innovative approach is the symphony orchestra itself, traditionally one of the most conservative of musical organisms. Machover says that, post-Toronto, he’s looking forward to writing more work that’s exclusively his own, though he also hopes to do more large-scale collaborations in the future. That’s a good thing, because two other cities — he can’t say which — have already been calling.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at