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What Does Toronto Sound Like?
Tod Machover and TSO are asking Torontonians to collaborate with them to create a symphony for the city

Streetcar rumblings. Subway chimes. The “walk sign is on for all crossing” voice at the Yonge and Dundas scramble.

But what would these sounds feel like played by an orchestra?

That’s what Tod Machover and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra want to find out with their new project A Toronto Symphony: A Concerto for Composer and City. They are asking all Torontonians to participate by submitting sounds, either recordings or descriptions, that will be collaboratively assembled into a composition that represents Toronto.

Machover is a world-renowned composer and music technology innovator. His Media Lab at MIT is behind dozens of projects that seek to “extend musical expression,” whether it’s the Hyperinstruments he designed for virtuosos like Yo-Yo Ma or the composition software Hyperscore that enables people with physical disabilities to compose and perform music they wouldn’t otherwise be able to make. They’re also the brains behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Lately, Machover’s interests have shifted from enhancing individuals’ musical expression to engaging the public’s musical expression. So when the TSO commissioned him to compose a symphony for Toronto, he jumped at the chance to collaborate with the entire city.

“We want to go beyond crowd-sourcing to a rich, new level of creative exchange,” says Machover, contrasting A Toronto Symphony with other recent audience participation projects like the multimedia aspects of Bjork’s recent album Biophilia or the call for voice submissions from Hans Zimmer’s film score for the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. Instead of these one-way exchanges (more of a marketing ploy in Machover’s view) the goal is for the participants to really impact the outcome. “Let’s be radical about it. I’m going to put out a shape of a piece [of music], and it’s going to develop in a way I can’t predict, and as much as I can make possible and is of interest to you, we’re going to make it together.”

Tod Machover’s visual blueprint of A Toronto Symphony. Courtesy of TSO.

A preliminary experiment with some TSO musicians has already yielded unexpected results. Machover sent the eight musicians some chords and they responded with their own musical ideas. “Honestly I can tell you I didn’t expect the kind of craziness, I didn’t expect it to be as inventive,” said Machover. “Once I got the material I had to kind of change what I was going to do, so I really hope that I’m surprised a lot.” The resulting composition, performed at the official launch at the ideacity conference, built from a scattered, wandering mélange of textures into a series of playful melodies and phases with each instrument taking brief solos. It’s an unexpected, yet pleasing tune that evokes the diverse bustle of a metropolis.

While he admits there is no easy answer for how to engage a city so large, especially those who might be turned off by the word “symphony,” Machover relishes the idea of working with such a wide-ranging group. Likening it to how he staffs his lab at MIT he says, “I just love putting together a group of people with different experience levels and just saying, ‘We’re all equals, let’s solve these problems.’ I just find it really exciting to work like that. In some ways what I’m trying to do in this project is to expand that to 5000, 10,000, 100,000 people so that we’re really communicating about decisions and what we like. It’s probably not going to be perfect because it’s hard to do that at scale, but that’s the goal.”

But if there’s any place that’s suited for a challenge like this, Toronto is it, he says. “It’s one of those cities that is both kind of mature enough that it has a strong sense of who it is,” he said. “At the same time, there’s an incredible sense of freshness and openness.” Compared to the crazy jumble of New York or the cultural segregation that persists in Boston, Toronto’s inclusive diversity makes it the ideal lab for this musical experiment. “It feels like there’s room for everyone. You just don’t find that that often, you really don’t.”

According to Machover, even our geography lends itself to the project. “It’s one of the rare cities, it has no geographical boundaries. So it’s a very horizontal city, I mean there’s the lake that stops it on one side, but after that you know, Yonge St., you’ve got all these streets that go forever. It doesn’t feel like urban sprawl, it feels like it just breathes. There’s this sense of openness just in the geography. But then, there’s this sense of aspiration. There’s this centre of the city, which, not only is very vertical, but there’s this sense… Ever since the early 70s when I started coming here, it always feels aspirational. It feels like, ‘We’re going to make a mark.’ Just the skyscapers feel fresher than anywhere else.”

As for how all this might sound played by an orchestra, it’s still impossible to predict. But that’s what makes A Toronto Symphony so exciting: A symphony for a city with room for everyone. That’s Machover’s goal. “If it works out right, everybody who submitted something will say, ‘Oh it’s my piece.’”

To find out more information and get involved go to


Michael Kolberg is The Sprawl Editor at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter for jokes @mikeykolberg

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