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How to create a symphony of Detroit

Jul 27, 2015

Composer Tod Machover works with a Detroit Symphony Orchestra percussionist on what the beat of Detroit sounds like.
Credit Emily Fox / Michigan Radio

Tod Machover is a composer and professor from MIT.  It’s his job to create a Symphony for Detroit and he’s asking Detroiters for help. Right now he’s working with people living in Detroit and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to compose what he’s calling “Symphony in D.”


Machover says he’s recorded sounds of Detroit like an old Ford engine, the acceleration of a Grand Prix car, a Chaldean church choir, an assembly line, the crowd on the Tigers' opening day, and it’s those sounds that are being accompanied by the DSO. 

“You can take that sound and say, all right, is there a melody in there, is there a rhythm in there? Can I take that and make the strings in an orchestra play that? Can I pull the music out of that sound?” Machover says.

Machover says Detroit is musical by nature.

“One of the things that’s always struck me about Detroit is the energy and the rhythm and you know, it’s a rhythm and bass city. That comes from the factories, it comes from jazz music in the 20s and 30s, and Motown in the 60s and techno,” he says.

Machover has made symphonies for cities all over the world. This will be his fifth city symphony and the first in the U.S. He says this symphony is especially exciting because there’s so much change happening in Detroit.

“The fact that the city changed so enormously in the last 30, 40, 50 years, and the fact that it’s being reinvented now, that’s got a feeling to it,” he says.

Machover is getting Detroiters involved in the symphony. People in Detroit can record their own sounds and submit them through the Symphony in D smartphone app. Machover is also going into schools and having students create their own compositions.

Machover reached out to students at the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences to help compose. The handful of students who took part in Machover’s composition workshop didn’t need to know how to read music. They drew curves and lines on a computer program that kind of looks like a sheet of music, then the software writes the music for them. Some of these compositions will be used in the final symphony with the DSO.

Machover says another part of this project is to send the message that classical music isn’t just something that only a few special people can make.

“I think classical music is one of the domains where we’re most scared or intimidated about participating because the level of expertise is so high and of course there are certain things you can do in classical music that you can only do if you devote yourself to it for 20 years, but it would be such a more vital field if everybody was touching it somehow,” he says.

That point is getting across to the students. 13-year-old Emiilah Shuler and 11-year-old Samuel Pickens felt inspired after composing their mini Symphony in D.

“I think it gives us a chance to believe that we can do that one day, when we are all grown up, anything is possible,” says Shuler.

Pickens adds, “I’m glad to be helping my hometown make a symphony and I feel proud.”

Detroit residents can still submit their sounds of Detroit on the Symphony in D smartphone app. The final composition will be performed along with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on November 20th.

Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.