Tod Machover to capture sounds of the city with 'Symphony in D' project

Sitting down to talk with Tod Machover was going to be a thrill. I'd heard him speak and demonstrate his music before in 2008 at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's 8 Days in June Festival, and I was aware of Machover's Opera of the Future collaboration with the DSO, which will be staged later this year.
He's known for his innovations in sound technology, digitally-enhanced instrumentation (hyperpiano, hypercello, hyperviolin) and his association with the MIT Media Lab since 1985. In new music composition and elite academic circles, Machover is way up there -- a made guy called "America's most wired composer" by the LA Times.
The thrill was heightened when, soon after we meet at the coffee counter at Great Lakes, a documentary film crew began pinning microphones on us and cameras started to roll from multiple directions. It's cold outside, but suddenly the temperature in this corner of the room is rising fast.
"Is this alright for you?" I ask.
"This is alright for me," he answers, and we're off, talking about Detroit music (the Stooges, MC5, Motown, George Clinton, techno) and the "Symphony in the D" project that aims to collect sounds of the city that will be assembled throughout the year and have its premiere at Orchestra Hall in November.
Machover's friendly, down to earth, even. He smiles and laughs a lot while he talks, peppering the conversation with anecdotes of people he knows with Detroit connections (screenwriter Wesley Strick, who wrote for Creem magazine in the late 1970s) and others who have figured into his own work (futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose belief in human immortality provided some inspiration for the lead character in Machover's acclaimed one-act opera, "Death and the Powers").
He says of Kurzweil: "Will he live forever? I'm not sure -- but he's an interesting guy."
Intersection of humanism and technology
Machover grew up in Manhattan, the children of parents whose combined interests seemed to foreshadow his own future. His mother is a Julliard-trained pianist; his father an engineer.
"My mother brought high art to the family and dad was a populist who was making computers in the 1950s," Machover says. "What I do is a combination of humanism and technology."
He would also attend the Julliard School, where he studied with Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions in the late 1970s. Soon after, he was invited to become composer-in-residence at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris, where he was named director of musical research in 1980.
Machover has composed works for Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, the Boston Pops, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He transformed Philip K. Dick's philosophical sci-fi novel VALIS into an electronic opera (staged at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris), as well as designed interactive systems for performance by Peter Gabriel (he was great in the 70s and 80s, kids) and Prince (we digress, but if we can pick a candidate for immortality, well, why not the purple rain man?). 
There is an app for that  
Back to the conversation at Great Lakes, we meander back to the motivation for our meeting: to break down what "Symphony in the D" is all about and what Machover plans to do in Detroit while he is here.
"This is a place where the past, present and future are all mixed up," he says. "There are ghosts here, audio artifacts everywhere, rhythms that are alive. Nowhere I've been is really like Detroit."
Machover says he's constantly learning what makes this so in Detroit. He has a few ideas.
"The geography is enormous, but the city is very quiet," he says. "People here are invested in sound. We've had very strong responses to this project, perhaps more sincere than anywhere else we've done it."
Machover recently met music students and their mentors at Youthville in New Center, where he says the reaction was enthusiastic.
The DSO is the first American orchestra to work with Machover on the collaborative symphony, though Machover has completed similar projects in Toronto, Edinburgh, and Perth. He is currently working on one for this year's Lucerne Festival in Switzerland.
Everyone can contribute sounds to the Symphony in the D project. A page has been set up with links to apps that will help you record and upload sounds of the city. Get the app and start uploading here now.
After the sounds are collected, Machover and his team "will chop them up, analyze the fragments" and create an evolving sound map of the city. Along with composing and staging the opera in the fall, Machover says there is a plan to install a room filled with collected sounds at the Michigan Science Center.
"We'd also like to do a jam session with the fragments we get," he says. "There is a lot of talent here; it depends on who we could get. Obviously that would be pretty great."
The project is made possible by a $315,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Walter Wasacz is former managing editor of Model D. 

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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