The art of commissioning

Programming

I’m just back from a wonderful evening of new music courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and their long-running New Creations Festival, which has just concluded its 9th edition tonight with its grand finale, Tod Machover‘s A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City. To create the musical portrait of the city, the composer turned over to its people, and not only listened to them, but invited them to participate in the writing of the piece. The festival’s theme was the celebration of the partnership between technology and music, and the technology in this case was provided by none less than MIT, in the form of a graphic notation software that could be used by schoolchildren and anyone else who wanted to contribute.

What was especially interesting about it was how visible the creative process itself was left to observe, and how intensely collaborative it had been. From MIT Media Lab, who provided their technological expertise and tools, to teachers learning to use the software to in turn guide their students through it, via the TSO Youth Orchestra who helped to transcribe city sounds recorded by Torontonians into musical notation, right up to the CN Tower, Toronto’s freestanding structure, that offered a special light show synchronized to the performance, there were many hands and minds at play, and Tod Machover did an extraordinary job of turning all these contributions into one piece of playable – and listenable – music

Of course the event was duly noted as a ‘World Premiere’ and ‘TSO Commission’ in the brochure, and this brings me to a common trait of many festivals: presenting new and recent works or instigating their creation.  Some festivals have made it into a distinctive feature – such as Manchester International Festival, self-described as “the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events”. In the same city, the Manchester Jazz Festival formalised their commissioning scheme a few years ago, making it an open application with clear criteria and naming the scheme mjf originals (I have some claim to the name, and produced the first two official selections in 2008, Matt Owens’ Ten and Olivia Moore’s Mask).

The next mjf originals commission will be premiered this coming July, and here’s a taster from the website: “a collaboration between Mike Hall and Deborah Rogers, a new and quite unique ensemble that will fuse early renaissance music and contemporary jazz, with a mixture of modern and replica 16th century instruments”, such as “crumhorns, shawms, cornamuses, cornets, sackbuts, lute, gemshorns and recorders”. Pretty original indeed.

Right from the start, mjf originals has been an open application scheme, whereby artists can submit their project and be selected on clearly stated criteria (one of them being the connection of either the composer, the performers or the concept itself to Manchester and its region). Selected applicants are then invited for an informal interview to present their project in more details, and the fees and production budget and timeline are jointly decided with the mjf team. It’s an artist-led commissioning process, probably as transparent and collaborative as it gets, and following the creative process from first draft to performance was a huge perk of the job.

And as a post-scriptum, Tod Machover’s new commission has just been announced: he will be bringing his crowd-sourced symphony to Edinburgh International Festival, this time inviting contributions from all over the world, alongside 10 other premieres revealed here.

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