Hidden from small

Crowds of Witnesses: Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Orchestra Commission “Philadelphia Voices” Takes on a Bold New “Genre”

February 27, 2018

“Crowdsourcing” as a term for the tech age was coined as recently as 2005, but as a broad concept it’s as old as human society itself. Any social contract, any set of organizational by-laws, even any national Constitution, is the result of the coming-together of a multitude of ideas, opinions, voices: a “crowd of sources.” Wikipedia, which is quotable here perhaps only because it is itself a sort of modern triumph of crowdsourcing, defines the term as “a sourcing model in which individuals or organizations obtain goods and services, including ideas … from a large, relatively open, and often rapidly evolving group … to achieve a cumulative result.”

In the arts, roots for crowdsourcing were planted, perhaps, by anthologies of stories by various authors, or by murals painted by multiple artists, or even (in music) by the variations that Anton Diabelli commissioned from 51 different composers in 1819 and published as a gigantic mish-mash. In the modern era, composers have taken this to a new level by including natural sounds, poetry, and storytelling—from the recorded bird calls in Respighi’s 1924 The Pines of Rome to the seemingly random chatter in Luciano Berio’s 1968 Sinfonia and the recorded conversations that morph into instrumental melodies in Steve Reich’s 1988 Different Trains.

Some might say that none of these relatively controlled settings constitute crowdsourcing per se. Certainly none of them could have prepared us for Tod Machover’s “crowdsourced symphonies,” which take to heart the concept of egalitarian openness by soliciting material from everyone and everywhere, which the composer then forms not only into the very building-blocks of his music, but into the text for the piece as well. The way these collected elements fit together, and the collaboration that evolves between all the participants, is at the core of Machover’s vision.

Composer Tod Machover getting some sound from the Drexel Young Dragons. Photo by Rebecca Kleinberger

This April 5-7 (at the Kimmel Center) and April 10 (at Carnegie Hall), The Philadelphia Orchestra presents the world premiere of Philadelphia Voices, the seventh in Machover’s series of crowdsourced “City Symphonies” and perhaps the most comprehensive in scope so far. For nearly a year, the Juilliard-trained, MIT-based composer has spent countless hours in Philadelphia-area schools, community centers, museums, workshops, cafés—talking, listening, collecting, recording. Last May the Orchestra launched a Philadelphia Voices app (developed by Machover’s team at the MIT Media Lab) that has collected some 8,000 recorded entries—from poems and stories to natural sounds and urban chatter that represent the unique feel of the city that calls itself the cradle of American democracy.  

“It’s an incredibly creative place, and I did get a huge amount of text,” says Machover, adding that he listened to every single one of the recordings from the app (some of which were quite lengthy). But he also says that his face-to-face conversations with Philadelphians from a broad spectrum were just as valuable, if not more. “And part of that is because it’s called Philadelphia Voices: We made it clear that we were looking for sounds of the city, yes, but we were also looking for the sounds of people’s voices. And I was really, really impressed with the variety of different things that people did with their voices. Some of them sang, a lot of people just made sounds with their voices, and some were actually speaking. And that’s exactly what I was looking for: stories about the people themselves, about their personal lives. Stories about Philadelphia that were unique and that could be conveyed with the voice. I took my favorite texts collected from throughout the city and created a kind of ‘libretto’ that forms the backbone of the symphony.”

Machover and members of The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Philadelphia Voices app launch in Perelman Theater in May 2017. Photo by Pete Checchia

To some extent, the emphasis on the voice grew from the enthusiasms of Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is also music director designate of the Metropolitan Opera and one of the great vocal conductors of today. (Yannick met Tod at the 2016 Musical America Awards, where the conductor was dubbed Artist of the Year and Tod was named Composer of the Year. After an animated conversation about music and orchestras, the two enthusiastically agreed Tod should do a work for Philadelphia.) “First of all, I love the voice,” Yannick says. “Our Orchestra, of course, is at the center stage of this. But there’s so much vocal talent here as well, that we commissioned Tod, one of our most important composers, to write a community-oriented piece, a large-scale one that will have The Philadelphia Orchestra and all the talent of the city—of various origins and ages and backgrounds. Commonwealth Youth Choirs will be part of it, as will Sister Cities Girlchoir and the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and they all will collaborate with the Orchestra in this very special world premiere.”

Philadelphia Voices is part of a larger vision: Community Commissions is a pioneering initiative designed to meld community and artistic voices on stage on a regular basis. Driven by Nézet-Séguin himself, the program began with the establishment of Hannibal as the Orchestra’s Music Alive composer-in-residence and continues with the Machover premiere and a Hannibal commission, Healing Tones, scheduled for March 2019.

Adjunct to the commissions is a series of concerts that regularly embed artistic partners from all backgrounds and genres into regular season performances: Bernstein’s MASS in 2015 invited such groups as the Temple University Concert Choir, the Rock School for Dance Education, and Temple’s Diamond Marching Band. More recently the Orchestra included bagpipers from the Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes and Drums into performances of Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. Hannibal’s Healing Tones will include intimate collaborations with schools, churches, detention centers and other organizations.

The Philadelphia Voices app with some entries.

Each of Machover’s “City Symphonies” is tailor-made for a community and its concerns. (He now counts Toronto, Edinburgh, Perth, Lucerne, Detroit, and Miami among the cities “covered,” and after Philly will come Boston.) For the Symphony in D, the Detroit Symphony invited poets and storytellers, including some who remembered the Motor City’s economic heyday, to appear onstage and recount their memories. In Lucerne, one of the city’s Fasnacht ensembles (a sort of Swiss version of the Mummers) was invited to interrupt the piece with a raucous parade-through.

In Philadelphia, Machover was supplied with such an abundance of choral and miscellaneous vocal talent that he decided to set many of the spoken entries to song. “We have 250 people onstage, as kind of my choral collaborators.” In addition to texts and recorded sounds (bird-cries at the Philadelphia Zoo, traffic, cheesesteak meat sizzling at Pat’s), the various choirs he’s been working with all year “have become collaborators in a way that is deeper than in any of the other projects.”

Machover says he wants to utilize both the poetic and the vocal gifts that he was hearing throughout Philadelphia to express what was, for many, the crux of the city’s legacy: “The birthplace of democracy.” He encouraged contributors to “reflect a little bit on what it meant to have had the country start here, and to be where we are now. And does Philadelphia have any particular role to play in rethinking where we’re going at this particular moment?” What he found was an enormous variety of commentary about the subject, but also plenty of opinion “about how people treat each other in Philadelphia, and about how the structure of the neighborhoods is so important to people’s identity.” And about SEPTA—which received both opprobrium and (mostly begrudging) praise. “Philly is a place where people are in their neighborhoods,” Machover says, “but they also feel like the whole metropolitan area is open to them, and that they have the resources and the public transportation to get there.”

Machover talks with an actor dressed as James Madison at the Constitution Center’s National Constitution Day in 2017. Photo by Xi Wang

He was also struck by the extent to which William Penn’s ideals, and the genius of the American Constitution itself, seemed to be “more in the DNA here than anywhere else.” It wasn’t an accident that the country started here, he says, and even jaded locals are proud of that. “So I really went in wanting to know how much of that has persisted, how it is shown in the institutions, and what it means for people today.”

To no one’s surprise, Philadelphians—from savvy teens to pensive, fast-talking adults—were more than willing to speak. In the Philadelphia Voices finale, which the composer describes as “a kind of hymn to brotherly and sisterly love,” Machover said he found himself inexorably drawn to a forthright poem by a 16-year-old from the Mighty Writers program: “She basically cries out, ‘When are you going to f**king listen!?’ Because when we come right down to it, we’ve never had a period where democracy is actually in question. Who would have thought? So it seemed important to look at Philadelphia through the lens of democracy.”

In particular, he says: “How do we set up a situation where we’re willing to listen to anyone, let alone someone who disagrees with us? That’s part of the feeling that I want to come across. That here we are, listening to this symphony, but we’re listening to each other onstage, listening to each other in the city. … Having a place where we feel what it’s like to hear other voices happens to be a value I think we should leave people with, at the end. A value that is central to Philadelphia, and to me.”

Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices receives its world premiere April 5-7. For more information and to purchase tickets please visit www.philorch.org.

Paul Horsley is performing arts editor of the Independent in Kansas City and writes for several publications nationwide. During the 1990s he was program annotator and musicologist for The Philadelphia Orchestra and subsequently served as music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star.