Art has a cultural value, an educational value. It enriches community. And those values are independent, and far more important than its monetary value.

Composer and Toy Piano Composers co-founder Chris Thornborrow balances composing and art direction duties with his doctoral work. He shares with us his perspectives on the performing arts.

Profile picture of Chris Thornborrow

Chris Thornborrow: Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Toy Piano Composers, BMus, MMus, and DMA Candidate

Tell us about yourself. What is your interest or involvement in the performing arts?

I am a composer of primarily new concert music, especially chamber music and opera. I am currently a doctoral candidate in composition at the University of Toronto, where I am a TA for the Composing for Film course and for theory. I also teach piano privately. I have also scored a number of short films, and I am, along with Monica Pearce, the co-founder and artistic director of the Toy Piano Composers. My interests are pretty multifaceted, so I’ve got my hands in a lot of different pots. I truly enjoy the creative/collaborative aspect of the arts. I like the strong sense of community I get out of all of my “arts”-related endeavours, whether it be coordinating the next Toy Piano Composers show, working with a director on a film, or teaching a ten-year-old student Beethoven’s Für Elise.

Can you tell us more about the Toy Piano Composers? As co-founder of the group, what was your motivation for helping to start it?

The Toy Piano Composers was formed in 2008 to present new music by emerging Toronto composers in a playful and engaging way. We don’t necessarily always write for the toy piano, but it does act as a symbol, for the group, of curiosity, humour, and a willingness to “play.” In our first four years as a collective, we have premiered dozens of new works and collaborated with a number of new music groups, including Sneak Peek Orchestra, junctQín keyboard collective, TorQ Percussion Quartet, and the Array Ensemble.

Our motivation initially was simply to get our music played. Monica and I had just finished our master’s degree at the University of Toronto and had little or no recourse of getting our music out into the Toronto scene. At the same time, there were a number of friends and colleagues we knew that were in the same boat. It seemed like a good idea to get these composers all in the same room, get organized, pool our resources, and put on a concert.

I think now our motivation is somewhat the same, although the dynamic has changed. Many of our composers have since moved out of Toronto. We have members living in Vancouver and Edmonton. We’ve also each gone on our own paths as composers, developing our own styles, goals, and reasons for composing. Our purpose now, at least in my mind, is to provide a platform for these composers to connect with an audience in a meaningful way and to present music in a way that is inviting and engaging. At the same time, we also want to give the music we present high-quality performances and a chance for our members to “strut their stuff” in a way that does not compromise their integrity as artists. And we’re trying to reach an audience that will probably really like new music, but have never had the chance to hear it before. It’s really an exciting challenge.

What projects or events are you currently working on?

We just finished our first concert of the Toy Piano Composers’ fifth season, called “We Started a Band.” This concert was the premiere of the Toy Piano Composers Ensemble. We decided to form a group of musicians with the hopes that they get to know the Toy Piano Composers better and, thus, get deeper into their music in the coming months and years. The ensemble consists of a number of performers we’ve worked with in the past as well as some new performers who are quite active in the Toronto music scene.

We have another show planned with this ensemble in January called “Artistic Differences,” in which composers were asked to write a piece of music inspired by an artist of their choice. We’re still in the early stages of that, so right now I’m wearing my “composer’s hat” on this project, writing a piece based on legendary animator Ryan Larkin’s short piece, Walking.

Finally, we have a project in the pipeline that will be a collaboration with Montreal-based Ensemble Paramirabo. We will be doing a concert tour with them in March, which will include confirmed shows in Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, and Banff.

On a personal level, the biggest monkey on my back is my doctorate, so I spend a lot of time these days working on—or procrastinating from—my research and composition for school.

What do you see as the main challenges for those in the performing arts?

I think one of the most challenging things in the performing arts is maintaining a balanced life. Music-making, whether it be through performance or composition, takes a great deal of time. On top of that, unless you are very lucky (and/or hardworking), it simply isn’t very lucrative. There are many composers and performers I know who work in jobs that are only loosely related to their “art making” endeavours, and whatever free time they have after work goes towards either composing or practicing. This can be an alienating experience, exhausting, and in some cases not so great for your health!

Do you have an example or examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a composer or event organizer? How did you overcome them?

It’s difficult to come up with specific examples of challenges I’ve faced as a composer. In general, I think composers are challenged by the optics of new music. I think new classical music is perceived as self-important—that if you don’t understand it, it is not the fault of the composer but yourself. I don’t think new music is self-important, but I do think people tend to regard it as such, and part of what drives me to present concerts in the way that I do is to overcome these optics.

With most new music concerts I go to in the city, it tends to be the same people I run into and the same performers performing. There is this notion that a certain crowd that is “in the know” goes to these concerts—experts of the concert hall, a sort of clique. This may be true, but it’s no different than virtually every other genre of niche music, whether it be blue grass, electronica, hip hop, metal. It’s that whole idea of “I knew that band BEFORE they were cool!” For me, I think the challenge is building a relationship with performers I trust, collaborating with composers I am inspired by, and building an audience with people who like this stuff too. I guess the challenge is building community and having the courage and sincerity to share my music with other people in open, honest dialogue.

What would you like to see happen in support of the performing arts, and why should it be supported?

This is something that I’m struggling with at the moment. A few years ago, when the arts—and specifically arts cuts—became an election issue, many of the arguments that were made were economically based. For example, the largest arts organizations in the city got together and created strong arguments about why funding the arts matters. It builds communities, it enriches lives, etc. But the linchpin of their argument was an economic one: for every dollar invested in the arts, 17 dollars is returned to the economy through surrounding business such as restaurants, tourism, hospitality, and transportation.

I can understand why the economic argument was made, since the fragility of the economy was, and still is, in the forefront of public perception; it is of real concern. But for me, in terms of support for the performing arts, I would love to see a change in public perception. Art has a cultural value, an educational value. It enriches community. And those values are independent, and far more important than its monetary value.

I am being a bit hypocritical here because although I see the biggest value of art not being money, I still strongly believe that the arts should be publicly funded because of this non-monetary value. So it’s a bit of a catch-22 for me.

What role do you see BeMused playing in supporting the performing arts community?

I must admit that I’m not as diligent as I should be about reading blogs and keeping up with events in my city. I am on the mailing list for most new music presenters in the city as well as the COC. But one thing that I would be curious about seeing is a publication that gives a meaningful voice to as many as possible artistic fields represented in the city, whether it be art, theatre, film, music, or dance. I have a hunch that there are tons of artists out there working very hard in their own field and are entrenched in the scene that they are part of but, if given a gateway into another field, could potentially be blown away by an experience in an art-scene they didn’t even know existed. It’d be a lot of work, but I think BeMused could be that gateway.

What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?

Take more risks. Take more walks. Get more sleep.

… To be honest I really do feel like I’m still just starting out.