Nominative determinism aside, Matthew Tosca was always destined for a career in classical music.
For one thing, he has perfect pitch – the ability to sing, play, and identify any note on the spot. Approximately 1 in 10,000 people possess this gift. Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin all had perfect pitch; so did Michael Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald. For a conductor and violinist like Tosca, perfect pitch is a pretty handy skill to have in the locker.
It's not his only one: Tosca is also a Synesthete, somebody whose sensory perceptions are linked – in his case, vision and sound. He can see music. Indeed he can see pretty much every sound, from a construction site to a conversation, but music is particularly relevant as it was seeing music that inspired Tosca to form Vox Vanguard – an immersive arts company that fuses classical music, spoken word, dance and visual art to create a truly unique performance piece.
Whether journeying with Dante into the seven circles of hell, or returning to the Roaring Twenties in a reimagining of The Great Gatsby, the audience at a Vox Vanguard event can expect an evening unlike any they have experienced (even if they've seen a previous Vox Vanguard event).
We met Tosca in a Kensington cafe to talk music, art, and what it's like to see sound...
How would you describe Vox Vanguard?
We are an immersive classical arts production company. And we produce immersive bespoke art.
Is there such a thing as a typical production?
Every single show is different. The story starts in different places, whether it's inspired by a brand that we're designing something for or whether it's a ticketed event. Dante's Inferno – we did that in Merchant Taylor's Hall in 2016. That was open to the public, an immersive masquerade experience for Halloween.
Each circle of hell was inspired by a piece of music. We went through all seven circles. There was baroque orchestras, baroque singers, actors, a full ballet, music ranging from the 1400s to the 1920s, and then it culminated at with a 60-piece symphony orchestra playing Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration, which was climbing up the back of Lucifer to get to purgatory. It was epic.
We had projections in that show by Moritz Waldemeyer who did part of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. He was able to create this incredible background projection that represented the dark forest, the fires of hell and the ice of the deepest circle.
How long does it take to put a show together?
Maybe two months, six to eight weeks. The actual production time we move quite quickly because everything is on a very tight schedule. So maybe about a month to put a show together, and then probably about two months before that of reading and researching. It’s all about historical context – you really want to put the people inside of the music, whatever the story you’re trying to tell.
Then working with visual artists to create the illustration, the design, and then the choreographers for the movement. We orchestrate all the pieces with a resident composer, Kenichi Ikuno Sekiguchi, who I went to school with in New York City. I'll give him the instrumentation, give him the piece, and I'll say ‘we want to do this section, this section, this section’, and then he creates an entirely bespoke arrangement for that performance.
How much does it cost to put on one of these shows?
It varies a little. Anywhere from £25,000 to £100,000. They're pretty intense works of art. But the goal is to one day be doing awards ceremonies, the Met Ball, fashion shows, and those people are going to do five, ten million a show.
In the classical music world, I feel like we fight against each other a lot because there's so much competition
What was the first Vox Vanguard show?
It was called The Gilded Bird Cage. It was at this penthouse in Shoreditch, owned by a lawyer who also studied piano at Oxford. He offered his home to me to do a show when I was starting the company. So we performed the Franck Violin Sonata together and did a Victorian show that went through the stages of love. So we had a painter who painted these paintings that went through the stages and movements of the Franck Sonata paired with letters from Victoria to Albert, and Oscar Wilde. It kind of went through when you first fall in love, to the pain, and then marriage at the end. Everybody dressed up in Victorian attire. It was a really fun time.
Are there any constant elements to each show?
Always varies. We try to always make sure there's some sort of speaking portion, whether that's acting or a host or a spoken word. We like to provide these signposts for people to grab onto. Not necessarily telling them what they are going to feel but giving them some parameters within the realms of what they kind of should be imagining, because it helps give that context.
And your performers are drawn from a wide community, right?
Freelance artists that are kind of part of a community. In the classical music world, I feel like we fight against each other a lot because there's so much competition. But need to realize that our industry is very difficult and we should all be helping each other. That's really what Vox is about. Providing that opportunity, maybe giving big roles to people that they would have never danced at the Royal Ballet, but then also giving them the opportunity to collaborate together across different disciplines.
In the whole collective at large we have more than 250 artists from around the world that we've worked with – in addition to probably another 250 that we hope to work with. We’re always looking for new talent.
How did you get into music?
My dad is a major league baseball coach. Carlos Tosca, he was the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. He had me in sports but my grandfather was a violinist. I had perfect pitch. There was this out-of-tune violin – I kept trying to tune it and instead of the strings breaking, the violin broke in half. I was, like, five.
Then I started a music program in middle school. Started the violin there. I got lessons when I was 15, which is very very late. Basically gave up on high school, practiced for two years, and then was accepted to Mannes College of Music in New York City with Sally Thomas. Finished my undergraduate in New York, moved back to Florida, taught for a year, and then went back to New York City for my masters in orchestral conducting. And then I decided that's what I wanted to pursue.
Synaesthesia is like watching all the lines and all the voices interact and colour changing for harmony, and texture, timbre, instrumentation
What inspired you to start Vox Vanguard?
Ten years ago I met one of my very good friends in uni. Victor Main, a guitarist. And he asked me that age old question of 'how does music make you feel?' And I told him. I see it.
He told me, 'well that's not normal.' And he explained to me what synaesthesia was: the crossing of your synapses. So when you might hear something, you see something, or when you taste something, you smell something – any crossing of two of your senses.
I decided that I wanted to create this total work of art that really helped people get inside of the music and experience what it was all about.
Explain synaesthesia as a sensation…
Imagine a visualizer when you're listening on a computer, except mine is more linear – so rather than a visualizer you'd see kind of pulsing from the centre. It's like watching all the lines and all the voices interact and colour changing for harmony, and texture, timbre, instrumentation.
And that’s unique for every piece of music?
Every sound. Loud, loud noises like the tube or construction work can be painful. I’m even having it now, as you speak.
Is there a particular piece of music that’s especially potent when you see it?
Mahler. Gustav Mahler's Symphonies. One of them is even called the Titan. They are titanic. It took me a long time to really come to them, because it was almost too overwhelming.
What we create is something they cannot see anywhere else in the world
What do you see?
It's depends on how overwhelming it comes. If you're a single line, you maybe start to see one kind of thing. But if it becomes something that's really enveloping, like a huge texture, it can nearly kind of blackout my entire vision. As if I was experiencing a painting.
So Vox Vanguard is a way for everyone to experience synesthesia…?
Yes absolutely. And it’s developed over the years. Nowadays, with people on their phones all the time, you have to find different ways to be able to connect to the audience.
Tell us about your show for Boodles…
Boodles really helped the business move to the next level. It was the 220th anniversary, they wanted something that was fun, that was a party. F. Scott Fitzgerald by my favourite writer. He really captures the essence of the 1920s so we wanted to bring that to life, but for Boodle’s 220th anniversary rather than Jay Gatsby we made it Mr Wainwright.
It’s something you’ll never see anywhere else. Especially our clients that are in luxury retail or working for big institutions. If they're entertaining for their clients, their clients are multimillionaires, multibillionaires. These people can buy and pay for whatever they want. What we create is something they cannot see anywhere else in the world. It is a bespoke creation. Most of the time, one night only. They see it and then it's gone.
All that work for one night?
Yeah. It's pretty powerful. It's different because you know when you work in a West End Show you maybe do 250 performances a year. You feel pretty dead inside by the end of it, and your body's just doing the movements. But there's something so visceral and so alive when you do something once. The audience may have never heard this music before, and that's why we're putting ourselves in this situation – to show they can connect to it and they can relate to it, that it is relevant in the 21st century. You want to blow them away.
I love it when people come up to me and say, I bought this album or I went to the ballet or I went to the orchestra. That's what I want people to do; I want them to come see what we do and not be scared of classical music or the opera or the arts.
Plans for the future?
I want it to have many arms. I want it to be influencing visual artistic thinking, performance artistic thinking, while also creating content and, who knows, maybe making movies as well.
I just want to influence art, and I want to be a leader in how all artists collaborate together to keep us relevant in an ever-changing world.
For more info, see Vox Vanguard