Buss: Detroit’s sound infuses music, community

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News
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Over a cup of coffee downtown, it was quickly obvious Tod Machover’s passion for “Symphony in D,” the first sonic portrait of Detroit, is largely due to the material at his disposal: The city’s rich, yet often overlooked, relationship with music and a community eager to continue it.

“In many ways, I think Detroit’s the place I always wanted to do this project,” he says.

His research into Detroit’s neighborhoods and people, along with sounds submitted by Detroiters over the coming months, will be the basis for the symphony, set to debut in November.

Machover is a professor of music and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s also an inventor and a prolific composer who has written portraits for four other cities internationally.

But Detroit is the first city in the United States to commission such a piece. And that just seems right.

Whether it’s the start of a car engine, a rendition of “Please, Mr. Postman” or the staccato beats of techno at a warehouse party, Detroit has always boldly broadcast its sound.

“People care about music here,” Machover says. “They pay homage to its music history.”

Dennis Scholl, vice president of the arts for the Knight Foundation, approached Machover about coming to Detroit after realizing how much he involves the community in his pieces.

It’s only fitting the home of Motown and techno, and the first city to put its orchestra on the radio is blazing the American trail with a new kind of musical production.

True to the city’s diverse musical roots, the community has been more than helpful.

“I had to evangelize more for other cities, but here people are coming to me,” Machover says.

Capturing Detroit’s history through sound is a reminder that the city has always taken its ideas — in industry and in music — to the masses.

Henry Ford’s automobile would not have been as revolutionary without the assembly line to standardize it. Similarly, pop music wouldn’t have grown so organically without Motown’s assembly line-inspired musical output. Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. developed a music writing and production pattern that mirrored what he learned working at Ford Motor Co.

“Motown,” Machover says, “could only flourish in Detroit,” where it was able to develop free from outside influences and other major music hubs, like New York and Los Angeles.

That unique sound was borne out of factory-dense Detroit neighborhoods, where people both worked and lived, absorbing their environment and replicating it for the rest of the world.

“Certain neighborhoods were filled with factories,” he says. “They were everywhere — you could hear two or three at the same time.”

Machover says this “counterpoint of factories” — layer upon layer of the sounds of pounding, of people making things — likely led to the emphasis on rhythm, bass and propulsion that defined Motown, and with it, today’s pop music.

Of course Detroit is more than its music history, and any piece must also reflect the city’s darker elements.

“In Detroit, there’s a focus of energy and sound, and then there will be silence,” Machover says. “The juxtaposition is really striking.”

But Detroit’s often troubling story is boosted by its penchant for music.

“(The Detroit Symphony Orchestra) refused to give up on Detroit,” says Paul Hogle, executive vice president of the DSO. “These buildings we built in Midtown were the catalyst for this area. We came here and built before it was fashionable.”

And it’s true. A performance by the DSO or at the Detroit Opera House, or a show at the Fox Theatre kept people coming downtown when it was an otherwise questionable place to be.

“A community like Detroit, with such a rich, cultural legacy, decided long ago that was the last thing they’d ever give up,” says Scholl. “You saw it in the battle to preserve the DIA. When you have a legacy of cultural excellence and you have the idea of the arts ingrained in your DNA as a city, it’s something worth fighting for. And Detroiters fight for it every day.”

Detroit’s prolific relationship with music is rare even among big cities in the U.S., and has proven indispensable.

The hope is Machover’s Detroit piece will continue to share the city’s legacy — and sounds — with listeners far and wide.

Kaitlyn Buss is an editorial page writer at The Detroit News, and runs the DVoice blog on Detroit culture from those who live, work and play in the city: blogs.detroitnews.com/dvoice.

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