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How many Torontonians does it take to make a symphony? Try 5,000 or so

Machover's A Toronto Symphony is the product of an almost year-long experiment in city-wide, computer-fuelled collaboration.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

'That's it!"

Tod Machover, looking 20 years younger than a guy soon to celebrate his 60th birthday, slams the manuscript down on the desk between us.

"That's A Toronto Symphony!"

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Machover might be forgiven for his delight and amazement at finishing the piece that will be featured Saturday night as part of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's annual New Creations Festival. After all, A Toronto Symphony was no regular commission: That manuscript in front of us is the culmination of an almost year-long experiment in collaboration between the composer and about 5,000 Torontonians.

It's just the latest experiment by a man who for close to 40 years has been exploring the intersection of technology and classical music. At 22, fresh out of the Julliard School, he was appointed composer-in-residence at Pierre Boulez's Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris – at that point the most advanced music-research institution in the world. Today, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's famed Media Lab, Machover composes new pieces, invents instruments, and leads the work of a team of students exploring the feedback loop between machines, technology and the human element in music.

So when TSO music director Peter Oundjian approached him to write a commissioned work for New Creations (Machover is also curating the festival this year), the composer decided to do something different: create a new model for composition that "would allow experts and the general public to do something together."

The "expert" part of the equation is important to Machover. For all his work imagining the future, he is not a proponent of the John Cage "throw some dice and write your piece" school of composition. A Toronto Symphony has not been "crowd-sourced." For the most part, it has come out of Machover's imagination.

But that imagination has been fuelled by the work of scores of ordinary citizens. Among them: people who, at his request, sent him recordings of themselves, or sounds of the city; kids in public schools who worked with simple computer programs Machover and his MIT colleagues created; and Torontonians of all ages who participated online to manipulate two computer apps, released by Machover last fall, that allowed them to experiment with composing parts of the work.

He invites me to give one of the apps a try. It's called Constellation and consists of a computer screen covered with coloured dots of different sizes. "Go ahead," Machover tells me. "See what happens."

As I move the mouse, the dots explode into sound – different sounds for different colours. I can move across the screen, changing the type of sound I hear; quickly or slowly, changing the mood. I'm composing a piece of music.

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As did hundreds of other Torontonians, sending their efforts to Machover and his team. They listened to it all, reworked the material, translated a lot of it back to the sounds of a traditional orchestra, and in the process created a unique model for making a work of art.

And make no mistake: It's the piece, not the process, that is paramount to Machover. "You want things which are fantastically beautiful and refined," he tells me. "To achieve that, you need … to decide who does what in making a work of art. You need a new kind of dialogue."

That dialogue is sometimes clear in A Toronto Symphony – in sections where found sounds of the city are played into the piece, for instance – and sometimes subtle, as in sections where Machover has been inspired by his collaborators to compose his own music. A Toronto Symphony is supposed to be that elusive chimera – a sound portrait of the city. And one that will become a part of Toronto as the work itself unfolds: On Saturday night, the CN Tower will pulse in sync with the piece's live performance at Roy Thomson Hall.

Ultimately, the real test of A Toronto Symphony will be its ability to move its audience. Still, the process of how it came into being is taking on a life of its own. Machover is adapting a version of his collaborative approach for this summer's Edinburgh International Festival. And other cities have made inquiries about replicating the process for themselves. Maybe some day we'll hear A Miami Symphony, A Venice Symphony, A Brandon Symphony.

But first, the original, created right here.

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