Tod Machover is inviting Totonto's 2.6 million inhabitants to become composers.
The orchestra isn’t the first place you would look for non-hierarchical democracy. Its music is sometimes seen as elitist, while its musicians are often (if not always) beholden to two individuals: the composer and the conductor.
Tod Machover wants to change that. A composer and inventor, Machover is currently writing a symphony about the city of Toronto in collaboration with not just the city’s orchestra, but also its 2.6 million residents.
“It’s beyond crowd-sourcing,” he says over afternoon cake. “I think of it as massive collaboration. Crowdsourcing is a one-way ask for something very specific. Collaboration is something that goes back and forth, and turns into something truly open.”
Machover already has a loose backbone of the piece – but the rest is up for grabs. He might give two of the piece’s main chords to schoolchildren, and ask them to come up with melodies that link them. For the last few months, residents have sent him recordings of their favourite city sounds, which he then turns into music at public workshops around the city. He also uploads recently imagined sequences, and invites all-comers to improve them – often on Hyperscore, a composing programme that simplifies music notation.
“A lot of the project has to do with who’s actually responded,” he admits – but even so, it has blown a usually conservative institution wide open. “Orchestras are expensive. The economics make it more difficult to generate much new repertoire now than it was 100 years ago. So the temptation is to turn the orchestra into a museum institution.”
With the Toronto symphony, Machover wants the orchestra to do the opposite: to democratise classical music, while still making something that is creatively excellent. “I want it to be something that I feel proud of, and I don’t want to feel like I’ve just managed something,” explains the man who, incidentally, created the technology behind the computer game Guitar Hero. But equally, he says: “I want something to be created that I couldn’t have done by myself, and for everyone else to feel that way too.”