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Getting hands on with TSO's interactive symphony app

Categories: Live Performance, Music, Social Media

Tod MachoverComposer Tod Machover introduces the Media Scores app for his interactive TSO project. (YouTube)

Wanna remix a symphony for the TSO to perform? There's an app for that (sort of).

Composer Tod Machover and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra have been hard at work on an "interactive symphony" -- a composition inspired by the city that also incorporates public input. A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City was first announced in June and since then Machover has compiled a collection of everyday city sounds recorded and submitted by the public, kept everyone updated on his progress via blog posts and worked with local music students on the developing piece.

The latest step is Friday's launch of a digital app that Machover created with his team at the MIT Media Lab. It allows regular Joes to mix and rearrange certain sections of the musical work-in-progress.

The first section at play is the finale: a movement dubbed Toronto Dances. Through the Media Scores app, aspiring musicians (or even just curious folks) can, for instance, fiddle with A Toronto Symphony's harmony line or change the accompaniment. Maybe you'd like to try repeating one element for several beats or playing around with the melody? Your call. Another section of the piece will be released for remixing in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, Machover and helpers will be taking all these different submissions and wrapping them into the final score.

"What I'm interested in right now [is] 'What's the relationship between professional musicians -- of whatever background or style -- and the general public?'" he explained Thursday.

In the past 20 years, people have gained unprecedented access to every kind of musical genre, but many listeners have simply become passive consumers, zoning out to their iPods, songs always playing in the background, says the Massachusetts-based composer and MIT music and media prof.

A music-maker long interested in technology and audience participation, Machover has more recently been fascinated at how his teen daughter's generation is taking popular songs and morphing them -- for instance through cover versions posted online.

Tod MachoverTod Machover has long be interested in audience engagement and technology. (Gino Sprio/Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

That said, "it's pretty unlikely that [a Lady Gaga YouTube cover his daughter makes with her friends] will change Lady Gaga's next song," he admitted.

The interactive Toronto Symphony project is his attempt to turn that involvement into true, two-way communication. Beyond letting the public mash up music he's created after the fact, Machover is keen on incorporating the various interactions into the final product.

Submissions and feedback he's received range from audio clips submitted by Torontonians (like the three-note TTC subway door chime or buskers drumming at Yonge-Dundas Square) to feedback about a chord progression he was puzzling over. These ideas were suggested by local student musicians attending his workshop.

"It's a really interesting opportunity to think about different models of how an artist would have a real collaboration with the public, with colleagues," he said.

Toronto symphony a unique project

Machover has the street cred: he's written contemporary classical music and operas, developed "hypercello" works for Yo-Yo Ma and created the music composition software Hyperscore (Can you use a mouse? Then you can compose music!). Though he's been involved in many innovative and unusual gigs, he says A Toronto Symphony is "certainly nothing I've done before."

An orchestra's job "is not just to give concerts, but be a place where people can come to experience music," he said.

He also said Toronto is perfect for this experiment in interactivity. Machover has worked with the TSO in the past -- he's friends with music director Peter Oundjian -- and the company invited him to program its 2013 New Creations Festival. The TSO will perform the world premiere of A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City on March 9.

He thinks of the city as a salad: a swirling assembly of diverse, complex ingredients that stay distinct while still being part of the whole.

"The amazing thing in this city is that everything is here. It has this texture. You know you're in the city, but everything manages to keep its integrity at the same time," Machover said.

What he's grappling with now is not just creating an abstract piece of music, but developing something that affects people emotionally, "involves being aware, literally and metaphorically, of what your city sounds like" and "doing justice to the richness of what's coming in."

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