DSO incorporates city’s aural landscape into new work

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Detroiters really know how to sound off.

When composer Tod Machover first asked residents last year to upload audio clips that represented the city, he was flooded with submissions. In all, there were about 15,000 “sound bites.”

The purpose was to incorporate as many sounds as possible into a symphony Machover was composing about Detroit. Titled “Symphony in D,” the work will receive its world premiere with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall this weekend. The composer guesses he was able to use “from about a half to two-thirds” of the submissions, which will be interwoven throughout his symphony.

Machover, who is professor of music and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, has written four other City Symphonies — for Toronto, Edinburgh, Perth and Lucerne — but Detroit is his first one reflecting an American city. He calls the response from Detroiters “simply remarkable.”

“It was such a rich collection of sounds,” he says from his state-of-the-art home studio, situated incongruously in an 18th-century barn in Waltham, Massachusetts.

“A lot were recordings of cars, both historic and modern, but there were also events like the Movement Festival, the Winter Blast, the Dream Cruise and the Slow Roll (a bicycle ride through Detroit neighborhoods).

“Then there was Opening Day at Comerica Park, a performance at Bert’s jazz club or the M-1 rail construction. There was quite a mixture.”

But Machover didn’t weave the sounds into his symphony willy-nilly. They had to have meaning and context.

Machover felt that he had to explore the city on his own if he was going to paint a sonic portrait of it. So, beginning in the summer of 2014, he made monthly visits here and immersed himself in the social and cultural life of the city.

“The first thing I did was to go downtown, then up and down Woodward Avenue, then the east and west sides,” he recalls. “I went to factories, schools, Belle Isle, the Heidelberg Project and Hamtramck Disneyland (a backyard collection of whirligigs and plastic folk art).

The city is so vivid.”

The project started because a representative from the Knight Foundation attended Machover’s symphony for Edinburgh and thought it would be an interesting idea to write one about Detroit. Machover was on board immediately, but the Knight Foundation also had to approach DSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin to determine if he would program the work.

It wasn’t a hard sell. Slatkin, a champion of contemporary American music, green-lighted the idea, and the ball started rolling. Slatkin will conduct both performances this weekend.

The sprawling “Symphony in D” is in five movements. The movements range from up-tempo and energetic to “quite gentle,” he said.

“I’ve incorporated the Detroit River lapping against the shoreline on Belle Isle,” he said. “And you can hear birds all over the place in Detroit, partly because there are pockets of nature preserves, and whole neighborhoods that have lost population have become urban gardens.”

The final movement includes something Machover hadn’t planned on including when he started the work.

“The people I met here were so remarkable, both for their stories and their contributions, that I wanted to include not just their recordings, but I wanted to invite them on stage to perform with the DSO.”

Those performers include everyone from techno musicians to church choirs.

“I feel like a native Detroiter now,” he says.

‘Symphony in D’

10:45 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday

Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward, Detroit

Single tickets: $15-$50; $100 for box seats

(313) 576-5111, dso.org, youtube.com/watch?v=Q63Tgd5HJIA