Crowds of Witnesses: Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Orchestra Commission “Philadelphia Voices” Takes on a Bold New “Genre”
By Paul Horsley.
“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.
Tod and his team at the MIT Media Lab have been capturing all kinds of voices in Philly. From the chef at Pat's King of Steaks sharing his secrets to making delicious cheesesteaks, to raucous birds creating a "dawn chorus" at Philadelphia Zoo, to high school students reciting the Preamble to the Constitution, we continue to be amazed by the energy, diversity, and musicality of Philadelphia voices.
In this first blog post of our Composer's Picks series, we share 13 of Tod's favorite voices from Philly so far. Check back often as the list grows, and don't forget to contribute your voices via our Philadelphia Voices mobile app. Download it (iOS, Android) today to start recording the sounds around you. Your submissions may be featured in our next Composer's Picks blog post!
By Tod Machover.
I had been discussing collaborating on Philadelphia Voices with Alysia Lee for several months, so it was a great treat to finally attend Saturday morning rehearsal of her Sister Cities Girlchoir at First Presbyterian Church in Fishtown. The girls ranged in age from about 12 to 18, and they showed an incredible amount of concentration for a Saturday morning; this came from practice and also from Alysia’s leadership and precise-but-expansive musicianship. The choir did some rhythmic exercises, then learned some melodies, then sang in counterpoint, then added movements to the music, and finally gathered in a large circle so that all of this could be consolidated and shared. The purity of tone and passionate delivery was infectious. After all of this, Alysia gave me a chance to work with the girls; I was pretty intimidated after seeing how well they worked without me! But we tried some additional rhythms, first counting 1-2-3-4, and then 1-2-3-4-5, as precisely and vividly as we could. I asked what word they knew that had five syllables...and someone finally guessed: “Philadelphia”. We experimented with the city name for 15 minutes or so, speaking, then singing, then shouting, both together and not-so-together. At the end, I gave the girls a challenge of helping to create Philadelphia Voices by thinking of words and phrases that convey the essence of the city to each of them, and then making melodies or texts to express those feelings. They will all work on this on their own and in Saturday rehearsals, and then we’ll get back together in a few weeks to share results. I am sure that some of this material will end up in Philadelphia Voices; the Sister Cities Girlchoir will be among the several hundred voices on stage for the premiere performances in Philly and at Carnegie Hall. Exciting!
By Rébecca Kleinberger.
One of the goals of the Philadelphia Voices project is to make music and music-making accessible to everyone in the city. You don’t need to be a trained musicien to make music, you don’t even need to be able to speak to vocally participate and have your voice heard! As part of “We’re HEAR Week,” the Philadelphia Orchestra organised a free sensory-friendly concert inviting everyone in the community and especially those of us with cognitive or physical disabilities, sensory sensitivities, learning differences or anyone who could benefit from a relaxing environment to enjoy music. I set up an experience booth with the help of Kevin Walker and his team from mSound recording studio. We invited families and children to rediscover their voices with technologies that we build at the MIT Media Lab. Children could try the ORB, a porcelain object that vibrates and becomes alive with the voice of the user. We also presented for the first time Milky Waze, a voice-controlled interactive software that allow users to conduct a choir of diverse voices from Philly only with their individual voices, to reflect how individual and society interconnect and echo one another.
By Rébecca Kleinberger, Diana Robinson.
Tod gave a talk to a group of chamber music students participating in the Philadelphia International Music Festival at Bryn Mawr College today. He introduced an array of research projects being developed at the MIT Media Lab, the ways in which music and tech can interact in interesting ways, and of course, the Philadelphia Voices project. The audience was an engaged;a group of talented young chamber musicians contributed interesting ideas to future adventures such as filming the sounds of the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska! We are excited to hear the sounds they will capture in Philadelphia with our mobile app over the coming months.
By Diana Robinson.
We were blown away by the talent and artistic passion we saw in the teens at the Village Arts program when we visited Village Arts, hosted by visionary program leader Mike O’Bryan. The students and Mike shared their perspectives on Philadelphia and the ways in which they experienced the city both as natives and recent transplants. We learned of their favorite spots from street performances in the subways to school sports as well as their ideas about music and art. A highlight was an a cappella performance from one of the students of a piece she had written in her notebook just the day before.
By Rébecca Kleinberger, Diana Robinson, Alexandra Rieger, Sizi Chen.
We were thrilled to lead a workshop at Drexel University’s ExCITe Center as part of its Young Dragons summer camp hosted by Professor Youngmoo Kim and his students. It was an energizing and illuminating morning! Working with the kids, we learned about the sounds of Philadelphia that resonated the most with them. Our activities drew out stories and thoughts about their favorite parts of Philadelphia, the sounds they heard there, and together we explored how to recreate these using just voices. Following this prompt, the kids also transcribed these sounds with crayons onto large papen canvases - some using words, others creating visual scores. At the end of the workshop, each group gathered to perform their mini composition. Despite some initial shyness, our performers were all very impressive in their unique styles, embodying something precious and intangible about the sounds that animated them. Congratulations to all the Young Dragons and thank you for letting us see Philly through your eyes, voices, and energy!
By Diana Robinson, Alexandra Rieger, Sizi Chen.
Rébecca Kleinberger, a Ph.D. student from the Opera of the Future group at the MIT Media Lab, gave a presentation at Drexel University’s ExCITe Center as part of the monthly “lightning talks” series in which speakers from across the University share short, informal research updates and introduced new initiatives. Rebecca gave an overview of the past City Symphonies , described how the model evolved from Toronto, and explained our hopes about the Philadelphia Voices project. After the presentations, we met with a group of diverse and interesting individuals, discussed potential collaborations with various school programs, and gathered people’s impressions and ideas about the Philadelphia Voices project.
After a day of meetings, it was magical to explore the pop-up hammock garden, food truck haven, and ships along the water in the Spruce Street Harbor Park. We strolled along the boardwalk capturing images and recording audio as we took in the sights, smells and sounds of busy vendors, seaside food creations and meandering people. We even encountered a golden-era swing dance and jazz show with performers in full period attire amidst the bustling crowds. It was fun to watch children playing with chess pieces as tall as they were, appearing lilliputian alongside giant games of Connect4 and Jenga. We were struck by the laidback vibe of Philadelphians out enjoying the evening and each other’s company. What a lovely urban summer oasis!