Ode to Detroit

DSO to debut innovative composer Tod Machover’s Symphony in D — a work blending traditional instruments with everyday sounds of the city


 Tod Machover

Do you guys have any old cars that we could bang or smash?”

Composer Tod Machover is only half-joking when he raises this question to percussionists Joe Becker and Jeremy Epp of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The three musicians are rummaging through the DSO’s percussion closet on a late afternoon in mid-July, pinging coffee cans, cowbells, and brake drums in search of unusual sounds.

“God, it would be so much fun to go to the junkyard together or get a used car and just bang on it,” Machover says. 

“Have you ever had an engine on stage?” 

Machover is in his element in this room of possibilities. The Boston-based composer and professor of music and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology makes his living at the nexus of sound and technology. He’s written science fiction and “robotic” operas, developed a collection of digitally enhanced “hyperinstruments” played by musicians as disparate as Yo-Yo Ma and Prince, and composed original work performed by the Kronos Quartet, the Boston Pops, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 

He’s also composed collaborative “city symphonies” — musical portraits — for four cities around the world: Toronto; Edinburgh, Scotland; Perth, Australia; and Lucerne, Switzerland. 

In November, Machover’s “Fifth” will debut in Detroit — the first American city to debut such a project. Which is why Machover — who fittingly wears a hairstyle somewhere between an Einstein and a Beethoven — is asking questions about engines, cars, and instruments in the DSO’s percussion closet. 

“Is there anything about Detroit that you feel like you could express on timpani?” Machover asks.

These aren’t typical stylistic questions, but Machover’s Symphony in D isn’t a typical composition.

Symphony in D is a different arrangement for a different age. The project is a blend of traditional melodies played by traditional orchestral instruments combined with everyday Detroit sounds collected, digitized, and translated into music via software developed by Machover and his team at MIT. 

Gathered sounds include the lapping of waves on Belle Isle, the roar of Opening Day at Comerica Park, the clink of the Rouge River Plant, and yes, the snarl of car engines — all in an attempt to answer the question, “What does Detroit sound like?”

If the approach sounds vague, it’s because there is no clear-cut path to completion, and Machover isn’t always sure which sounds will be played electronically or acoustically.

“Exactly how the sounds become part of the symphony, I don’t know 100 percent because that’s absolutely part of the creative process,” the composer says.

To add another layer of originality, Machover isn’t the only composer of Symphony in D. Over the past year, Detroiters have been encouraged to submit their own sounds of the city directly to Machover’s media lab at MIT, as well as the Symphony in D app, which allows users to record any sound in the city via smartphone and tag their recordings geographically to make a collaborative, sonic map of the city. Throughout the writing process, Machover listened to the user-submitted recordings for potential inclusion in the final symphony.

“It’s a piece that is our vision together of what Detroit sounds like, feels like, both now, in the past, and hopefully for the future,” Machover says. “We’re trying to get as broad a collection of the sounds of Detroit as possible.”

Detroit’s library of sounds is indeed eclectic, and in order to capture a swath of those sounds, Machover spent the past year exploring the city on foot and on wheels during monthly visits. He recorded in neighborhoods, parks, churches, and city institutions with the help of local guides like Chad Rochkind, founder of Human Scale Studio in Detroit, and Marsha Music, a local writer.

“The nice thing about these projects is we always have incredible collaborations with people and institutions in the city, so I get wonderful guided information,” Machover says. “But I love starting out with no guide at all. I love to just wander, partly following my eyes, my ears, my nose, with no preconception.”

One aspect of the city that caught Machover’s attention during his excursions wasn’t a particular sound, but the lack of one. 

“One of the things that struck me in Detroit, when you get out of a few neighborhoods, is just how quiet it is because so much has disappeared,” Machover says. “It’s harder to find outdoor areas here that are dense and loud than you’d expect.”

Other elements of Symphony in D were gathered in Detroit public schools, charter schools, and summer camps, where Machover and his graduate students from MIT conducted educational workshops using Hyperscore, music composition software developed by the MIT media lab that allows children — and adults — to create musical compositions by drawing with lines and colors. 

But Detroit’s youth weren’t the only ones who were eager to contribute.

“We’ve had groups of seniors here, which hasn’t happened anywhere else, who’ve come forth to say, ‘We want to represent the history of Detroit, and we want to represent things that have disappeared,’ ” Machover says.

Symphony in D has led to numerous firsts like these, the composer adds, and while putting the piece together, he was consistently surprised not only by the number of musicians who wished to contribute to the project, but also the enthusiasm with which Detroiters embraced it.

“I didn’t have a particular city in mind when I thought of this concept,” Machover says. “But this is the perfect city to do it in. I think it resonated — literally — with the city.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a city as rich in musical history as Detroit would embrace the idea of an audio portrait. But while Motown, techno, rock, and jazz all have their place in Symphony in D, the project also focuses on Detroit in 2015. 

For Machover, capturing Detroit’s present identity was an exciting challenge. “Detroit is at such a transitional moment right now, where there’s an opportunity and a necessity to rethink so many aspects of the city — what the built city looks like, where the parks are, what the industries are, how the different parts of the city connect or don’t connect,” he says. “It’s hard to find a place in the world where so much is changing.”

Within the past year, Machover has collaborated with a range of local artists to help capture the sounds of present-day Detroit. The composer recorded with members of groups Flint Eastwood, Valley Hush, Passalacqua, and JR JR (formerly Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.) at Assemble Sound, a Detroit music studio and community space co-founded by Garret Koehler. 

“He came into the studio and whoever was here, he worked with,” Koehler says. 

In addition to music, Machover also recorded Marsha Battle Philpot’s writing, which she read aloud during one session, as well as other organic sounds.

 Efe Bes

“We hadn’t put a new roof on the building yet, so rain was coming through into the balcony,” Koehler says. “[Machover] was going back and forth from the live room getting sounds of people recording and getting sounds of the rain hitting the balcony.” 

In July, Machover also connected with Efe Bes, a Detroit drummer who frequently performs outside Comerica Park and in Eastern Market. Machover recorded Bes’ drumming outside of MBAD African Bead Museum, adding to his collection of sounds by Detroit street musicians.

“[Detroit] is a city made up of vivid individualists,” Machover says. “The kind of people who survive here are individual, quirky people who just take whatever they want to do and just go for it. … I feel like my responsibility is to reflect as many of these incredible individual voices as I can.”

There’s certainly not enough room to cram all of Detroit’s “vivid individuals” into a single portrait, but if there’s a way to do it, Machover has been determined to find it. And no matter which sounds or voices are featured prominently in the final piece, he hopes that Detroiters will find something recognizable in Symphony in D

“I want to do justice to the richness and the imagination and courage of people in this city,” he says.

No music software can translate those qualities into melodies, but for Machover, “no” is an unfamiliar word.

Symphony in D premieres on Nov. 20. For more information, visit dso.org/symphonyind

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