What does Detroit sound like? This month sees the launch of a new, yearlong partnership between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and American composer Tod Machover. Together they are enlisting the public’s help in creating a collaborative symphony to capture the essence of Detroit in sound. Using a custom-designed app, Detroit residents and visitors to the city are invited to record and upload its various distinctive sounds, from the beeping of car horns to the roar of the crowd at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. Machover – dubbed “America’s most wired composer” (Los Angeles Times) – will use software he created at MIT’s Media Lab to incorporate selections from these public submissions into a new tone poem. The work, entitled Symphony in D, will receive its premiere by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall on November 16, 2015. The project is made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The DSO is the first American orchestra to work with Machover on a collaborative symphony. He has completed similar projects in Toronto, Edinburgh, and Perth, Australia, and he is currently working on one for the Lucerne Festival 2015 where he will be Composer-in-Residence. The Knight Foundation’s vice president for arts, Dennis Scholl, heard Machover’s symphony in Scotland, and immediately wanted to bring his work to Detroit. The DSO’s track record in community engagement and digital innovations via its webcasts made it the perfect partner for the collaboration. “The future of Detroit is being shaped by the city’s creative community,” said Scholl. “We’d love to see more people get involved, and Symphony in D will be a great vehicle for people to share the sounds that define their Detroit.”
Since surviving a labor dispute in the 2010-11 season, the Detroit Symphony has bounced back with a vengeance, playing a key role in the regrowth and regeneration of the city. This was partly accomplished through a shift in focus towards the local community, including over 400 extra services performed annually by DSO members in the city and surroundings beyond the orchestra’s regular season concerts, and an education initiative that welcomes 1,000 kids to the hall each week for rehearsals and coachings. The orchestra has pioneered free webcasts, viewed by more than half a million people in over 100 countries, prompting the New York Times to comment: “The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has the most ambitious free web-streaming program of any major American orchestra.” This spirit of technical innovation has long been central to the orchestra’s ethos, and indeed it was the Detroit Symphony that gave the world’s first radio broadcast of a symphonic concert, with pianist Artur Schnabel as soloist, in 1922.
In order to create a musical portrait of the Motor City, the symphony for Detroit will evolve through electronic sound submissions, workshops and discussions throughout the city, original sonic creation, and back-and-forth musical sharing and shaping with Detroit residents and community institutions. Machover, Professor of Music and Media at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has developed technology that can collect and combine sounds and translate them into music. The snarl of a Mustang’s engine? Fair game. The chaotic din of Eastern Market on a Saturday morning? No problem. The DSO wants to discover what Detroit sounds like through its community. The process involves layers, interactions, associations and discoveries that will produce a work representing the heart and soul of Detroit’s past, present and future.
Special technologies developed by Machover and his Opera of the Future team at the MIT Media Lab will allow people of all ages to contribute to and help shape Symphony in D. The Constellation app, used in previous iterations of the City-Symphony series, is a web-based app that allows anyone to hear the latest sounds collected and to combine them into personalized mixes. Yet another equally significant mobile app in development will be designed especially for the Symphony in D project and will allow any sound to be recorded and then geographically “tagged” via mobile device, creating an evolving “sound map” of Detroit and surroundings. This mobile app will be available through the Apple App Store and Google Play in early 2015.
As part of the project’s community outreach program and educational workshops, another computer software program developed by Machover and his team, Hyperscore, will allow young people to compose their own musical portraits of Detroit by drawing with lines and colors that Machover can then translate into orchestral impressions. During the year leading up to the premiere, Machover will visit schools and community centers throughout Detroit to hold workshops and engage the community. This symphony is called a collaboration for a reason: it will bring the community together to explore the city’s unique sounds and to simply celebrate living in Detroit.
“Detroit is a city filled with bold and contrasting sounds, from the roar and purr of cars, to the crackle and snap of Motown, to the gentle rhythms of urban gardening,” said Machover. “I look forward to working with Detroiters from all backgrounds to create a collective musical portrait of this exciting moment in the city’s history, when everything is being rethought and anything is possible.”
“The concept of utilizing the sounds of our city, both those found and those submitted by others and then incorporating them into an orchestral work is quite amazing,” said DSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin. “It will be interesting to see what sounds the people of Detroit will submit and what Tod will choose and how the piece will unfold. Clearly this is a project of unique interest to all those interested in the power of collaborative thinking.”