New World Symphony

An MIT composer is collecting snippets of sound to turn Miami and Philadelphia into audio masterpieces.

It’s easy to disregard the hum of a city—the incessant honking or indistinct chattering—or to cast it off as noise pollution. There’s real concern that these sounds pose a health risk, but a handful of artists have a different take. To the likes of Tod Machover, a composer who combines music with technology at the MIT Media Lab, these sounds are what makes a city sing.

Machover has turned the sounds of Toronto and Edinburgh into symphonies that reflect the characters of each city. His first piece for an American city, Symphony in D, invited Detroiters in 2015 to contribute over 15,000 sounds unique to the city—drumming from the streets, sounds from factories, and spoken words by local poets—that were combined with instruments played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

“Like so many things in our culture, there's a growing gap between experts and ordinary people, and I thought music is such a great laboratory to show how things can be different,” says Machover. “So I wanted the project to be a representation of connecting people—no matter what their background was in music—as equals.”

His latest project, called Project 305 and funded by the Knight Foundation, takes him to Miami, where he’s teamed up with the city’s New World Symphony academy to create an audio and visual masterpiece. He’s helping lead community tours to collect sounds and videos, and working with schools to teach students how to do the same. He’s also launched a similar project in Philadelphia, in partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“The really important thing is that the musical ideas come out of the sound we collect,” Machover says. “But the piece has a to tell a story; it has to exist for some reason.” What the piece will ultimately sound like in Miami, and how the visual component will complement it, is still up in the air while the team collects video and sound clips. NWS has hired the L.A.-based composer Ted Hearne, known for his politically-entwined compositions, and the Miami filmmaker John David Kane to shape the final project, which is scheduled to debut at the academy on October 21.

Typical urban noise, like the revving of a car engine, the ringing of a bicycle bell, or the pitter-patter of pedestrian footsteps, can be found in virtually any city. So how do you make an audio portrait feel particular to the town it’s supposed to reflect?

Sometimes, it’s about incorporating the sounds that reflect a city’s history. Detroit, for example, was famously dubbed the Motor City for being the heart of America’s auto manufacturing industry. So Machover asked the community to send in recordings of different car engines, which he merged with Motown riffs, in homage to the city’s music scene. In Philadelphia, he hopes to capture the city’s significance as the birthplace of American democracy, and what that means now in a turbulent political climate.

As for Miami, the key might simply be to listen. Much of the city sits on the beach, mixing the sounds of human activity with the natural landscape. “There's an incredible kind of liveliness, a combination of restaurants and people talking,” Machover tell CityLab, “with the open ocean on one side and streets on the other.” In some areas, the abundance of birds overpower the rumbling of traffic with their chirping.

NWS is also gathering clips of human chatter, a way of capturing the diasporas within Miami. The city is often called the capital of Latin America with immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and other Spanish-speaking countries making up the majority of the population. Spanish has become a dominant language, but “you hear the same words inflected with all kinds of different accents,” says Machover.

When all is done, the entire performance won’t be confined to the halls of the academy. Instead, it will also be projected onto the facade of the building and simultaneously broadcast in different neighborhoods throughout Miami. “We are a geographically widespread urban area, so we're taking this piece of art out into the community,” says Howard Herring, the president and CEO of NWS.

When asked what he thinks the music will sound like, Herring will only say that it’s going to be “exuberant.” After all, he adds, “we’re an optimistic city.”

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