DETROIT >> International composer, inventor and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Tod Machover spent the past year contemplating the question: “What does Detroit sound like?”
His answer comes to life on Friday when “Symphony in the D” debuts at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall.
Machover’s original musical composition, which he created with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, is a blend of 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’s Media Lab.
The sounds, some submitted by the public and others gathered by Machover during periodic visits to the Motor City over the past year, include crowd noise from a baseball game, the clanking and drilling of workers at an auto assembly plant, and the pulsing beat of a street drummer banging on plastic buckets.
Machover had 15,000 sound files — 100 hours of audio in all — from which to compose the piece.
“I really wanted it to be a portrait of the city, so I invited everybody in the city — anybody who wanted to — to collaborate,” Machover said.
Detroit is sonically represented not only in submissions from the public, but also by city residents themselves.
Special guests will join music director Leonard Slatkin and the DSO on stage, where they will perform original compositions, read poetry and provide visions of Detroit’s past and future.
The in-person contributors include residents of a senior housing complex; a church choir made up of members of the city’s Chaldean community; and a quartet of Detroit Achievement Academy third-graders, one of whom composed a piece of music that will be played.
Kyle Smitley, who founded Detroit Achievement Academy, said she wonders when it will set in for her young students that they took part in such an innovative project.
“Maybe in middle school, maybe in college, they might look back and say: ‘Oh. That was insane,'” Smitley said.
Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Machover’s musical portrait of Detroit represents his first such effort in the U.S. He has completed similar “city symphonies” in Toronto; Edinburgh, Scotland; Perth, Australia; and Lucerne, Switzerland.
Machover has been contacted by other municipalities around the world about having him capture their sonic essence in music and hasn’t yet decided when or if he’ll do another.
Before such a determination is made, however, he first must unveil his ode to Detroit, which also will be performed on Saturday.
“It somehow sounds like something that could only have been done here. And that makes me really happy,” Machover said.