The city of Detroit has a more storied history than the state of Michigan itself. Founded in 1701 by French colonists, Detroit has had both towering highs and lethargic lows. It was in Detroit that Henry Ford’s engine first sputtered to life, the genesis of a journey that would culminate in the city becoming the capital of the automobile industry and the fourth largest municipality in the United States. And it was Detroit in 2013 that witnessed the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.
And yet, for all the highs and lows, one thing Detroit has always been is a place with a multifaceted populace, home to people from numerous different walks of life. It’s this diverse and vibrant image that composer Tod Machover attempts to capture in his new piece, “Symphony in D,” which will premier this Friday with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall in Midtown.
“I started this series of city symphonies about three years ago,” Machover said in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily, referring to a group of city-inspired works that began in a collaboration with the Toronto Symphony. “Detroit is the first city in the U.S. where we’ve done this project, and it’s … kind of been the dream city to do this project in, because there’s so much changing in Detroit now.”
According to Machover, there are many aspects of the city that make it a wonderful location for a project of this sort. Detroit’s recent struggles and rich history make it fertile ground for creative collaboration.
“It’s a noble, rich, fantastic, industrial city with a lot of great musical history,” Machover said. “And every difficult thing about American society hit in Detroit all at once, starting in the ’60s … and now everything is being rethought. So a project like this, people are just so open in Detroit now to think about what’s possible … doing that through a piece of music — people have really responded.”
Machover, who is a professor of music and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, has a thorough musical edification and vast experience with music technology and nontraditional composition methods. The son of a concert pianist, Machover attended Juilliard, where he studied with two titans of American 20th-century music, composers Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions.
“Elliott Carter in particular … he was probably the most creative composer I ever met,” Machover said of his former teacher. “I was inspired watching him think about music creatively.”
Machover was also the first director of musical research at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), founded by the legendary French avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez. All these experiences have made Machover extremely well-suited for a creative project like “Symphony in D.”
“Part of my work for a long time has been trying to use technology — or any means I could — to allow people to participate actively in musical experiences, whatever your background,” Machover said. “(The Detroit project) was a great moment to try to combine the two sides of my work. One is pushing the art form forward, and the other is trying to involve the public.”
Throughout the piece, Machover engages with the community of Detroit, collaborating with many different artists, musicians and community members from the city. The symphony contains not only musical contributions from Detroit residents, but also sounds from the city submitted by the public. Each of the symphony’s five movements reflects a different aspect of Detroit, from its automotive history to a vanished African-American neighborhood to a vision for the city’s future.
“By the time we got to Detroit I realized that what I really wanted to do was meet people personally. I wanted to explore the city myself and let people know what I imagined in the project,” Machover said. “I realized that the way to make this project work was really to have an open mind … I really came with an honest invitation to join me to explore the city, to teach me about the city and to figure out together what was worth telling.”
Drawing from his work at the MIT Media Lab, in one movement Machover uses a software that he and his team developed in 2002. The software allows for non-musicians to compose — in this case, a group of third graders from the Detroit Achievement Academy contribute musical material for the symphony.
“(The third graders) wrote original pieces about Detroit using software we have called ‘Hyperscore’ that uses lines and color to allow anyone to write original music that then gets transcribed into traditional notation,” Machover said.
Additionally, Machover has invited senior citizens to share their memories of the city, as well as the spoken-word artist Marsha Music and the writer Tonya Matthews to read their work on stage as part of the symphony.
“Detroit is a place where there really are incredible stories, people’s life stories, often that nobody had the chance to tell anybody,” Machover said. “So I thought there had to be a place for people’s voices in the symphony.”
For the final movement of the piece, there will be several Detroit-based musicians and groups performing on stage with the orchestra. Many of these musicians were people Machover met during the course of the project — some by pure coincidence, others through workshops and improv sessions.
“The fifth movement is the finale, called ‘Together in D,’ ” Machover said. “The actual people I’ve met are so extraordinary and their presence is so individualistic and powerful that there’s nothing like actually having some of them on stage as part of the performance.”
Also present will be an African drummer, an electric bassist, a techno-funk duo, an indie guitarist, four middle-schoolers from the YouthVille after-school program and a chorus from the Chaldean community — many of whom are Christian refugees from the Middle East.
“It was much later than usual for me that it turned into a piece,” Machover said, citing his open-minded approach to the project and the intense creative collaboration with various people from Detroit. “I think that’s a real strength about what this piece is.”
Made possible with the help of a grant from the Knight Foundation, the culmination of Machover’s Detroit project will premiere with the Detroit Symphony Friday at 10:45 a.m. at Orchestra Hall, Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, Midtown. An additional performance will take place Saturday at 8 p.m., which will also broadcast in a live webcast available on dso.org/live.