Symphony in D Interview with a Special Guest

Chantine Akiyama and Sue Liang, Undergraduate Researchers (UROPs) at the MIT Media Lab

Hey guys this week we have a special guest!! You have heard bits and pieces from him and about him, but we’re going to get to the nitty gritty this time and really tune into his heartbeat regarding the Symphony in D project through an interview. The special guest is…

Composer and Professor Tod Machover, head of the Opera of the Future group at the MIT Media Lab! He is the creative mind behind much of the Collaborative City Symphony work and just an inspiring leader and role model for his students. Here’s our interview with him.

What’s on your heart for the Symphony in D project?

Detroit is the ideal city; it has an incredible story to tell. It’s a city that grew up very fast and then lost half of its population. Detroit was the center of modern industry with the formative car industry, very proud, and it all crashed and fell apart in a perfect storm of all the problems that underlie capitalism. In Detroit’s history you can see all the potential and pitfalls of the US and modern society. It turns out that using music to think about these issues is great timing. The city has responded the way I wanted it to. We’ve set a process of convening around music and will just let it happen.

Do you have a specific sound you associate with Detroit?

There are things that jump out – rhythm comes to mind first- given the factories and industrial aspects of Detroit. Detroit also played a large role in developing several incredibly important music genres, from Motown to techno to hip hop, which started in middle class suburban Detroit. There was lots of inventive jazz, precision bass machine pounding, and I’m struck by how much the music is associated with the cultural fabric and socioeconomic conditions of this place.

If you keep open ears, then you can find surprising things. The roads make nice driving experiences, and I’ve found that Detroit has some of the quietest streets for a major city. The architecture and urban planning have affected the soundscape of the city and the juxtaposition of intensity and rhythm and quiet and nature is unexpected and incredibly interesting.

What has been one of the largest challenges with the City Symphonies and Detroit’s in particular?

The hardest parts of the Symphonies are always the beginnings and ends. First you have to get people actively involved with the project, and some of the young people have never even heard a symphony before. Then, after all of the music is collected, the difficult part is fitting it all into a 25-minute piece. There is no way that everything can go in, nor can I capture everything about the city. Especially with Detroit, where the involvement and turnout has been amazing with so many people participating and sending in clips, we have to find a way to best represent all cross sections and intersections of Detroit, so that even as a distilled snapshot, we can present something enriching and encompassing.

What impact would you like the Symphony to have?

There are four main impacts that I would like the Symphony to have. First, the music that emerges as the Symphony must be a piece that can stand on its own. It must be an emotional human statement about a place, and a specific one: Detroit.

Second, the Symphony is a research goal. The creation of this symphony is a great way to develop models where all different people of different cultures can come together and care about each other and contribute something. Every individual deserves to be represented and given a voice, and art is fantastic because you can create a model of how you want society to be. Through this project we can create spaces for collaboration and compassion.

Third, the Symphony is a way to show young people what music can do in this world, and help them find what they can do in the world. Many of our collaborators have never been involved with something like this before, and through the symphony, they can see projects like these and hopefully be inspired to become parts of works like this, and perhaps initiate new models of their own.

Fourth, the Symphony is a way for Detroit to connect. Detroit is quite a disconnected place. Boston to me is also quite a disconnected place. But in Boston. I think people are content with doing their own thing. In Detroit people want to meet, but don’t easily have the opportunity to meet, because of geography, transportation, social, and economic structure, etc. This project gives opportunities for people who would never otherwise meet to make connections that I think just might last in Detroit. After the symphony project ends, something we are thinking about is how to make all of the sounds involved in Symphony in D accessible for everyone in Detroit as a kind of living archive, now and forever.

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