Tod Machover Crowdsources a Symphony
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Tod Machover Crowdsources a Symphony

The MIT Media Lab founder talks about his symphonic scheme for Toronto.

Photo by {a href=}smuncky{/a} from the {a href=}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

First, a viola. Then, a bassoon. One by one, before a modest crowd gathered for Moses Znaimer’s IdeaCity conference at Koerner Hall, eight members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra debuted their contributions to a symphonic framework laid out by composer, MIT Media Lab founder, and Guitar Hero mastermind Tod Machover.

Machover, as it turns out, isn’t just a multimedia whiz; he’s also, as of now, a professional Toronto appreciator.

The 2012 Pulitzer Prize nominee was approached by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to create a new symphony about Toronto for the TSO’s 2013 New Creations festival. The resulting work, “A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City,” will be a collaborative piece built from a bare skeleton of music arranged by Machover and expounded upon by orchestra members, professional and amateur composers, and basically anyone else who has the wherewithal to upload a sound to the web.

Machover envisions an ongoing back-and-forth between himself and participants. “What I would not like,” he said in an interview following his IdeaCity presentation, mad scientist hairdo bobbing as he gesticulated, “is if it felt like I’ve put out a Jell-O mould.” In other words, he doesn’t want outside contributions to the piece to be edited entirely at his discretion. For the symphony to work as envisioned, the collaboration between Machover and members of the public will have to be real.

Since this process will be happening remotely, Machover has devised a basic structure on which to build the piece: it will be divided into eight segments derived from a mix of Toronto-sourced material (submitted online), Machover’s own music, and, sometimes, a combination of the two. Back-and-forth between the Boston-based symphonic architect and local contributors will take place through web-based communication platforms like Skype and Twitter.

It’s an undertaking Machover finds appropriate to Toronto. Three decades ago, he lived here while he was first cellist for the Canadian Opera Company’s orchestra. He’s been coming back to visit ever since, for both personal and professional reasons.

“There was always a tradition of really experimental media connected to artwork and technology [in Toronto],” he says. “New York’s always been more segregated between different artistic communities. So, like technology is always outside the museums or outside the orchestras. In Toronto, there’s always been a nice blend.”

Machover cites interactive artist David Rokeby and human-computer interaction pioneer Bill Buxton (the latter of whom worked at the University of Toronto for many years before becoming a principal researcher at Microsoft Research) as examples of the kinds of people he feels are representative of a uniquely Torontonian type of creative energy.

“You fly into the city, and you can just see the fact that there are no boundaries to the city,” he says. “When I stand in the centre of Toronto, I just stand around saying, ‘I am so exhilarated.’ It makes me soar. The buildings just feel taller than anywhere else, even though they’re not the tallest buildings in the world. It’s the combination of this openness, and this boom. It’s definitely something I feel, and definitely going to be in this piece.”

People interested in contributing to Machover’s sympony can do so online, right here.