Democracy is messy enough in politics, as the needs of many must compete with practical solutions. Imagine the challenge of mixing the input of thousands with the imperatives of composition. Is a dog’s breakfast the likely outcome? Yes. And that is what Tod Machover’s A Toronto Symphony turned out to be on Saturday night.
Taken as a traditional composition — meaning a collection of sounds filtered and organized by a composer’s imagination — the piece, subtitled Concerto for Composer and City, was a dud until halfway through (structurally — two-thirds of the way as the clock ticks), when Machover had clearly taken charge and shaped the half-hour of music into a coherent and cohesive narrative.
Taken as an act of artistic collaboration rather than composition, the piece fared slightly better.
According to Machover’s comments from the stage, 10,000 children and adults had some sort of input into the piece. Some recorded and sent in sound files. Others manipulated sound files digitally through one of several apps created by Machover and his team at the MIT Media Lab in Boston over the past year.
At several Toronto District School Board senior public schools, hundreds of children submitted their musical ideas. The Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra and members of the Toronto Symphony were enlisted to help translate the sounds of the city — like the clickety-clack of skateboards on concrete or the door chime on subway cars — into something that could be produced with acoustic instruments.
All of this inclusiveness is inspirational, and was highlighted on two large video screens above the stage as the orchestra played under the baton of music director Peter Oundjian. But the music, video, voice-overs and video text quickly began to look and feel like a Tourism Toronto promotional video rather than a cohesive narrative.
The process was brilliant, but the execution felt patched together rather than conceptually unified — a problem that was brought into even higher relief when the crazy-quilt first four movements gave way to Machover’s personal vision in the last four movements.
The MIT professor relied a lot on repeating patterns to create his music, which wasn’t hugely stimulating, but the orchestration was full and rich, nicely incorporating percussion.
Even so, A Toronto Symphony doesn’t have much of a future beyond that of a memory of an interesting experiment.
It was not a brilliant final flourish for the ninth annual New Creations Festival organized by the Toronto Symphony, but fortunately the young and enthusiastic Roy Thomson Hall crowd had heard two much more successful pieces earlier in the evening.
The concert opened with the premiere of Four Angels by Canadian composer Andrew Staniland, commissioned by the Toronto Symphony. This dynamic piece was all about an analogue orchestra caught in a digital fourth dimension. The orchestra played while Stanliand, seated amidst the players at a desk containing his laptop and other sound-processing accessories, produced electronic responses to the acoustic sounds.
At times through the 15-minute piece, the orchestra played solo. At others, it was Staniland’s turn to stand out. But the most interesting sonic textures came when everyone was working together.
This is a piece I would be very happy to hear again.
The second work, by American composer and guitarist Steve Mackey, was Four Iconocastic Episodes. it is a concerto for acoustic violin and electric guitar, another unlikely pairing laden with all sorts of potential. For this, the rest of the orchestra was reduced to strings only.
New Creations guests conductor Carolyn Kuan led the proceedings, with Mackey on guitar and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto on the other solo instrument. The guitar solos were largely heavy-rock style in the style of people like Jimi Hendrix, while the violin solos were melodic fragments, and it was a treat to watch the two soloists interact from either side of the conductor’s podium.
While Stanliand’s strength in Four Angels was in creating shifting soundscapes, Mackey’s four-movement concerto was surprisingly traditional in its structure as well as in his remarkably sophisticated use of counterpoint.
It was old-fashioned craft masquerading as old-fashioned entertainment, produced by a single creative source — and you really can’t go wrong with that.
You can catch the concert on CBC Radio 2 programme In Concert on April 21 at 11 a.m.