There was a relaxed, almost holiday mood at Roy Thomson Hall Saturday night as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Creations Festival began its ninth successive year. Partly the mood was thanks to the larger than usual contingent of young people in the hall; partly it was thanks to the genial, open attitude of this year's guest curator of the festival, composer/technologist Tod Machover.
But mainly it was because, in the 21st rather than the 20th century, the new in music is no longer so forbidding and foreboding. And that can only be for the good.
The theme of this year's festival, given Machover's position as composer-in-residence, in effect, for MIT's famed Media Lab, is the partnership of technology and music. This partnership, in itself, is not even slightly new. Classical composers started investigating early electronic instruments almost as soon as they were invented, in the 1920s and thirties. By the fifties and sixties, people like Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis and many others had made the intersection of technology and classical music central to their artistic output.
But the difference between these generations of composers and today's generation is that the earlier composers approached technology from a 19th-century view of the value of music – as a heartfelt, personal statement about an individual's relationship to the world. Older electronic music was serious, often austere, difficult.
Not so today. Younger composers (and I'm being generous to Machover, who actually turns 60 this year) grew up with technology. Since technological sounds have been the aural background to most of their lives, they are neither forbidding nor exotic.
So, for composers like Canadian Nicole Lizée and American Mason Bates, both in their 30s and both with works on Saturday's program, the integration of the technological and the acoustic is only logical. For Lizée and Bates (and for Machover, as well, whose Jeux Deux began the evening), the main source of musical interest these days is on the acoustic side of the equation, the way in which electronic sounds can blend and integrate with live musicians.
This was especially true of Lizée's Arcadiac, a lively rhapsody on the vanished sights and sounds of seventies and eighties video games, those remarkably low-tech but wonderfully enjoyable precursors to today's high-tech gaming extravaganzas. Lizée wrote a score and created a video presentation that blended recorded sounds from these long-ago classics, mimicked and commented upon by the instrumentalists of the TSO. Like the other works on the program, her piece was full of craft, high spirits and more than a touch of humour, but was, in effect, a soundtrack once removed, a piece more inspired by the visual than anything else.
This was also true of Mason Bates's Alternative Energy, an ambitious four-movement work based, when all is said and done, on a movie that Bates created in his imagination, rather than actually shot – a story about the movement of energy from the windup, mechanical sources of the past century through the high-tech world of the particle-accelerator present to an apocalyptic, destructive future. Alternative Energy was a soundtrack to an imagined film, with Bates providing live electronics and echoes of everyone from John Williams to episodes of Star Trek to Aaron Copland popping up in a well-orchestrated and well-realized score. But the musical effects seemed just that, moments designed to dazzle, illuminate a situation, then pass on.
Tod Machover's Jeux Deux promised a little more intellectual stimulation, based as it is on the capabilities of Machover's Hyperpiano – a Yamaha Disklavier, a normal grand piano that also has the capability to perform, without human hand, preprogrammed material, sort of a digital-player piano. Machover occasionally exploited the differences between the piano as played by a human soloist, Michael Chertock, and the piano, at dizzying speeds, playing itself, which might have been an interesting rumination on the limitations of the human, as opposed to the unlimited technological, but those distinctions were wrapped up instead into a well-written, ultimately relaxed piece of musical homage.
Technology and music, as proved on the New Creations Festival's opening night, easily integrate into a seamless whole these days – the old opposition of the human and the mechanical has disappeared. But the very familiarity these two worlds have for each other presents another danger – that the ease with which they connect prevents the kind of electrifying contrast of opposites, internal and external, out of which great music once was made. Perhaps the lesson of this New Creations Festival is that the old conflict theory of music needs to be rethought for a very new, very accommodating age.