The sound of Detroit captured in a new sonic portrait: Symphony in D

On Nov. 20, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will debut Symphony in D, a collaborative project made by and for Detroit in partnership with Knight Foundation. Last year, the DSO and Composer Tod Machover asked Detroiters, what does the city sound like? They responded by submitting 15,000 sound files including more than 100 hours of audio. Here, Machover writes about how the piece has evolved. Photos courtesy DSO.

I first thought of the idea of creating a sonic portrait of a city through collaborating with its citizens when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra approached me about a commission in 2012. I was inspired by that request to think about how the real sounds of the city could be combined with – and transformed into – a musical discourse of notes, rhythms and colors, and how sharing the composition process with everyone might help close the gap between the mystery of musical creation and the pleasure of listening. I truly enjoyed working with the Toronto Symphony to develop this model of community composition and we presented A Toronto Symphony in March 2013, followed by compositions for Edinburgh, Scotland, Perth, Australia and most recently Lucerne, Switzerland. Through each of these projects, we learned how to establish community dialogue through “listening” to a city, how to bring people from diverse backgrounds together through sound and music, and how to create a symphony that is both rich for its process as well as for its musical result.

None of these previous experiences, however, prepared me for the excitement and power of creating a collaborative city symphony in Detroit. Symphony in D came about because Dennis Scholl – then head of arts at Knight Foundation – heard about the Toronto project and arranged to attend the premiere of Festival City at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival. Dennis felt strongly about bringing the project to the U.S. and proposed that we think about Detroit, because of the incredible dynamism of the city as well as the adventurous spirit of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Fortunately, the DSO was interested, so together we planned the project and launched it last November. Since then, the community response has been simply overwhelming, from the generous sharing of sounds, to numerous exploration and improvisation sessions of making music together, to listening to unforgettable stories and memories, and to meeting some of the most imaginative, independent, visionary and passionate people on the planet. To me, it feels as if Detroit was the place I had in mind—without knowing it at the time—when I first imagined these city symphonies.

We launched the project with an invitation to the public to record and share their favorite, most indelible sounds of Detroit, and with my colleagues at the MIT Media Lab, we created a special mobile app—conveniently called Symphony in D—to make this as easy as possible. Recorded sounds were also automatically marked by geographical location, and a growing “sound map” of the city emerged, which the community could listen to, comment on and recombine into soundscapes using another app we created called “Constellation.” Over the following months, we received far more sound submissions from Detroit citizens than in any other city so far: iconic sounds from the People Mover to sporting events (winning or losing:); personal sounds such as stirrings in someone’s backyard to a child’s music practice session; mechanical sounds from automobile assembly plants to metal sculpture workshops; nature sounds from boating at Belle Isle to wandering in a blizzard; to cars, cars and more cars, from historic to most recent models, lovingly recorded zipping by on a city street or Grand Prix raceway to meticulously recorded from the driver’s seat or from under the hood. Many of these sounds were sent to us by individuals, but—unlike in the other cities we have visited—some were recorded by groups, such as Ringside Media and Doner, that went way beyond the call of duty to help share special aspects of the city they love. I also spent much time in Detroit exploring many corners of the city, listening and recording, and then re-experiencing back at MIT, or in my 18th-century barn studio in Waltham, Mass.

Beyond the actual sounds of Detroit have been the amazing people I have met in the city this year, from kids at Detroit Achievement Academy, to senior residents of American House, to musicians at the DSO, to teens studying beat-making and DJ-ing at YouthVille, to entrepreneurs, poets and performance artists, civic leaders, urban gardeners and musicians of the most diverse backgrounds, styles and instrumentations. I have found that people in Detroit – whether they have been there for generations or have arrived recently from near and far – are deeply devoted to the city’s rich and proud history, are thoughtful and articulate about its many conflicts and problems, and are energized and optimistic about building a future based on creativity, community and collaboration.

It is thanks to these amazing people that the “story” of Symphony in D has taken shape over these past months. I have listened to this multitude of sounds and have attempted to craft a work that juxtaposes the many – sometimes reinforcing, other times wildly conflicting – rhythms of the city that alternatively mesh and clash, that listens to the beauty of melody often rising resolutely from the bass, that acknowledges the importance of voice and the word in this city of talking and writing, and that seeks to express this particular, special moment in Detroit’s history when anything seems possible although the stakes are very high indeed.

As I had always hoped would happen when I first envisioned this concept of City Symphonies, I believe that Symphony in D feels both like my composition – something in which I have invested heart and soul, imagination and craftsmanship for over a year – and our composition to which so many have contributed.

I believe that together we have captured something essential, important and moving about Detroit through sound and through music and I hope that you will agree when you hear the world premiere of Symphony in D.

Buy a ticket to Symphony in D, or watch the livestream at 8 p.m. Nov. 21 at