PLAN 84: Article
What Does A City Sound Like?

A Toronto Symphony Answers with the Help of 10,000 Citizens

In March, the Toronto Symphony presented the world premiere of a new composition by SA+P’s Tod Machover, head of the Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group – a collaboration between the composer and thousands of the city’s citizens seeking to answer the question ‘What does Toronto sound like?’ Conducted by TSO music director Peter Oundjian, A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City, was the finale of the orchestra’s annual New Creations Festival, which Machover curated this year.

Over a period of several months, Torontonians were asked to send in their favorite city sounds as well as compositional fragments, elements that Machover then incorporated into the score. The thousands of sounds included seagulls, traffic, playgrounds, skateparks, streetcars, markets, festivals – and, most recognizably, the chimes that signal the opening and closing of the city’s subway doors – all of the recordings either included as part of the piece or recreated acoustically by the orchestra. Or, in some cases, both.

About 10,000 Torontonians participated in the year-long project, contributing by Skype and smartphone, blog and e-mail, and through face-to-face meetings with Machover. It also included contributions from a Toronto indie rock festival, where more than three dozen different bands offered sound bytes for the piece.

Collaborators used a suite of web applications developed at the Media Lab specifically for the project. ‘Constellation’ provided an array of musical gestures, represented as stars in the sky which could connected with lines to create a musical phrase. And ‘Media Scores’ allowed any user to play with the symphony’s finale, by bending time and adding accompaniments. Collaborators also created contributions using the color-coded graphics of Hyperscore, Machover’s graphic composing software.

The premiere was synchronized with a light show on the CN Tower designed by the Media Lab's Peter Torpey, who also designed the interactive graphics for the concert hall itself. Those who couldn’t attend the event were able to tune in to a live webcast including video, graphics and photographs illustrating both the piece and the process of its creation.

As an exploration of the changing relationship between composers and their audiences, A Toronto Symphony is a further extension of Machover’s ongoing research into the intersection of classical music and technology, research that has included such projects as Brain Opera, Toy Symphony and Death and the Powers, an opera featuring a chorus of robots and an animated stage that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012.

Machover is now adapting a version of his collaborative approach for this summer’s Edinburgh International Festival: Festival City will premiere there on August 27, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by music director Peter Oundjian. A number of other cities have also approached him about creating their own versions of A Toronto Symphony. To find out the latest, contact him at tod@media.mit.edu or consult http://opera.media.mit.edu.