Art

Composing the Sounds of Detroit into a Symphony

Students from YouthVille Detroit prepare to perform in 'Symphony in D' (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Students from YouthVille Detroit prepare to perform in ‘Symphony in D’ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — The sounds of the city have long been an inspiration to composers — think of iconic soundscapes from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to Bernstein’s West Side Story score. There is a difference, however, between creating music inspired by a city — but still wholly executed within the context of a symphony — and literally making music from urban sounds.

It is this latter ambition that drives composer and MIT Professor of Music and Media Tod Machover. In Detroit this year, Machover sought to replicate a project that he first executed in Toronto in 2012–13, creating Symphony in D, an original sound portrait of the Motor City in partnership with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). Using 15,000-plus sound bites recorded and submitted by people all over Detroit, as well as his team, Machover wrote a five-movement piece that was performed in the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center on November 20 and 21. It combined the audial minutiae of everyday Detroit with the creative power of the DSO, and live contributions from a diverse host of special guests, too.

Onstage at 'Symphony in D,' from left to right: teacher and students from Detroit Achievement Academy, Marsha Music, Tonya Maria Matthews, students from YouthVille
Onstage at ‘Symphony in D,’ from left to right: teacher and students from Detroit Achievement Academy, Marsha Music, Tonya Maria Matthews, students from YouthVille

Among these were legendary writer Marsha Music, experimental music duo ADULT., poet Tonya Maria Matthews, African drummer Efe Bes, and students from YouthVille Detroit and Detroit Achievement Academy. “Every time I came to Detroit — I was here for a few days every month, for over a year — every single meeting, every single encounter was something we hadn’t expected, and was something that really touched us very deeply,” Machover said in a short Q&A with DSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin preceding the performance. “It was one thing to record sounds, and people’s voices and people’s music, and have them come out of these loudspeakers, but it’s not the same as having them onstage to tell some of their stories and play some of their music.” This was a departure from Machover’s approach to the project in Toronto, which featured only recorded contributions and no live performance collaborations, as well as a testament to the willingness of Detroiters to get involved earnestly in projects that meet them on their terms. “People were interested in other cities,” said Machover, “but here it really felt like we made this thing together.”

Leonard Slatkin, Tod Machover, and Alberto Ibargüen
Leonard Slatkin, Tod Machover, and Alberto Ibargüen

The result was a cacophonous love letter to Detroit, running just under a half-hour without pause between movements. The first three of those movements demonstrated the virtuosity of the DSO, whose players smoothed out the rough edges and added a unifying underscore to the discordant industrial grind and babble of Detroit in sound-bite form: assembly lines churning, laughter, traffic, plus a thousand little pings, screeches, and beats that can’t be traced precisely to their sources but form the real-life Foley of a city at work and play. And then, just when it seemed the center could not hold, live reinforcements came to the rescue: Marsha Music leading the charge into the fourth movement, “Memories and Dreams,” with a stirring delivery of her original poetic composition of the same name. She was followed by a phalanx of Detroiters. “You know the city sings / out of tune on purpose / we don’t do harmony / it’s too predictable,” declared Matthews, in a dramatic reading of one of her poems (credited to her pseudonym, JaHipster), “The Difference Between The Boom and The Bass” — an assertion that reverberated with the unpredictable syncopations echoing around the music hall.

Marsha Music reads "Memories and Dreams" (click to enlarge)
Marsha Music reads “Memories and Dreams” (click to enlarge)

Moments that verged on unbearable saccharinity ended up feeling extremely powerful on the strength of their sincerity. Even the tokenism of young elementary students from Detroit Achievement Academy speaking their hopes was kept extremely real as the final child, no more than six years old, declared: “My hope for Detroit is that people will stop getting killed for no reason.” It was also heartening to see that respect for and recognition of an existing core of longtime Detroiters has become part of the party line for one of the city’s major arts funders, with Alberto Ibargüen, president, CEO, and a trustee of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, taking special care to declare an imperative to create an inclusive future for all the people of Detroit, not just the new ones.

In the end, perhaps the most moving aspect of Symphony in D was not seeing the sonic portrait of the city as presented by insiders, but seeing its collective effect on an outsider. As Slatkin said in his opening remarks, “Someone from the outside took the time to invest in our city — came to understand it, came to love it. So, perhaps the greatest transformation of all was with Tod.” In fact, Machover’s approach is ideal for the newcomer hoping to get a truly rounded perspective on Detroit — the sounds of this city are not many voices united in harmony, but thousands of individuals speaking their own truths simultaneously. From his opening remarks on the scope of possibilities present in Detroit to the warm embraces he received from participants during the curtain call, it did seem that Machover understood and loved what he heard.

Tod Machover’s Symphony in D was performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center (3711 Woodward Avenue, Detroit) on November 20 and 21.

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