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.