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Detroit to get its own musical portrait

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

What's the bonafide sound of Detroit?

You could debate this forever, but one possible answer will come next November, when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will perform the newly commissioned "Symphony in D."

The work, underwritten by $315,000 from the Knight Foundation, will integrate actual sounds into a score that aims to be a "musical portrait of a place," as composer Tod Machover put it Wednesday at the Max M. Fisher Music Center.

The "city symphony" will premiere Nov. 16, 2015.

"'Symphony in D' will be a combination of — I don't want to say, 'real music,'" says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology music and media professor, "but melody, harmony, rhythm and the actual sounds of the city."

To collect those sound fragments, and get ideas on how they should shape the composition, "Symphony in D" will rely on input from the public. To construct this collaborative symphony, Machover is asking Detroiters to submit digital recordings they think best represent their city at dso.org/SymphonyInD.

On Jan. 1, a mobile app for iPhones and Android devices will debut that will not only record sound, but will pinpoint the exact location where it occurred to create an evolving "sound map" of the city.

The web-based Constellation app will allow anyone to listen to the latest recorded sounds, and use an electronic toolkit to combine them into personalized mixes. Hyperscore, another program developed by Machover and his Media Lab team, will let youngsters create their own Detroit musical portraits by "drawing" with lines and colors that Machover will translate into orchestral sound. Listen to a sample below.

The composer's already gotten a start on his own local sonic library. In early explorations of the city, Machover's recorded a guy drumming plastic buckets at Eastern Market, as well as sewing machines stitching sleeping bags that double as coats at Corktown's Empowerment Plan. He argues Detroit, of all American cities, is particularly ripe for this sort of undertaking.

"Detroit, for me, is just bursting with energy," Machover says. "Musically, I keep thinking about bass lines and snare drums. I can't describe it in words, but it's something about energy and possibility."

Detroit will be the fifth city — and the first in the U.S. — to to get the Machover treatment. Earlier city symphonies were written for Toronto, Edinburgh, Scotland, and Perth, Australia. He's currently wrapping up a composition that will premiere next year in Switzerland's Lucerne Festival.

Machover is one of the co-founder's of MIT's Media Lab and the guy who wrote the software for the hugely popular Guitar Hero video game.

He comes naturally by his particular synthesis of musical talent and electronic know-how. His father was an engineer working in digital graphics, while his mother is a classical pianist.

"I think I did sort of meld their interests," Machover says with a laugh. "I've been obsessed with that in ways I'm a little afraid to examine. I used to think most kids did that with their parents' talents, but I'm not sure they do."

Bringing the public in as much as possible is another one of the things that delights him about these projects.

"I really enjoy opening up the compositional process," Machover says. "It's incredibly exciting to make a piece from scratch, but it's something anyone can participate in."


'Symphony in D'

Nov. 16, 2015

Detroit Symphony Orchestra, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit

To contribute digital recordings, visit dso.org/SymphonyInD