Giving Voice to Philadelphians

MIT Media Lab/Sizi Chen

Ahead of the world premiere of Philadelphia Voices, Tod Machover shares his insights into the composition and the community. 

Philadelphia Voices premieres on April 5, 2018, with The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, featuring 250 singers from Philadelphia-area choruses (Westminster Symphonic Choir, Keystone State Boys Choir and Pennsylvania Girlchoir, Sister Cities Girlchoir). There will be additional performances on April 6 and 7 at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center. The final performance of Philadelphia Voices will take place on April 10 in New York at Carnegie Hall, marking the first presentation of a City Symphony given outside the city for which it was written.  Visit this site for ticket information.

Q: How did Philadelphia Voices come about?

Tod: Five years and eight cities ago, we mounted our first project in the Opera of the Future group’s City Symphonies series. We hadn’t planned it; the idea sprang from serendipity.

In 2012, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra invited me to curate their annual festival and compose a piece for the event. I knew that they were an adventurous orchestra and that in asking me they wanted something unusual. As I considered how to create a musical portrait of Toronto, I knew I’d do it by listening to the city… and its people.

What was needed, I thought, was a way of creating a much broader cultural ecology where people who didn’t know a lot about music and people who knew more and the top people in the profession could all not just communicate but truly collaborate to make something extraordinary together. So, I went back to the orchestra and said that I wanted to incorporate real city sounds into the symphony, and I also wanted to invite the entire city to help me make the piece. The orchestra said yes.

Then my Opera of the Future research group and I had to figure out how to actually do this. In doing so, the City Symphony idea was born. That first project in Toronto, which premiered in March 2013,  was an invigorating success, and we went on to create City Symphonies in Edinburgh, Perth, Lucerne, and Detroit, among other places.

While the core mission of City Symphonies remains the same, each project has taken on a character of its own, unique to each city and what we find there. Now, from its very start, Philadelphia has been a very different experience from all the other cities.

Q: How does Philadelphia Voices differ from the other projects that preceded it in the City Symphonies series?

Tod: The music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, approached me. He’d heard about what we’d done with the other cities and wondered if we’d like to do a project in Philadelphia. He said, “You know, Philadelphia has a great vocal tradition. Would you be willing to consider looking at this through the angle of the voice?” I immediately understood “voice” in the broadest sense—not only the diversity and richness of singing but also the way our voices reveal so much about us as individuals and communities. I said to Yannick: “Of course I’ll do it!”

The other difference was the context of the time. We first talked about a Philadelphia City Symphony in early 2016 when the US presidential campaign was in full throttle. I could tell well before the November election that something was awry and that the whole political and civic discourse was shocking. So, it occurred to me that since democracy started in Philadelphia and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written there, it seemed like a perfect place and time to explore the state of democracy through music—where we are and where we could be.

As well, it seemed as though this City Symphony—which we called Philadelphia Voices—should not just be about Philadelphia, but it should also be a commentary by the citizens of that city about the state of our nation and the challenges and potential ahead.

So, with The Philadelphia Orchestra on board, we then needed to collaborate with many other partners in the city who could help us to engage its residents as well.

Initially, these projects are actually very difficult because you go into a city, you have to figure out who's there and who would want to participate. You have to convince people, you have to find what's right for each institution, each community, each person. I usually ask the orchestra or the partner organization to organize a gathering of potential partners from the city to kick things off, and we had a series of such meetings in Philadelphia. This led to some great collaborations, and those, in turn, led to many others. Much of this network-building was done face-to-face, but it was soon enhanced through tools and apps that we designed at the Media Lab to augment and facilitate participation.

Q: Community involvement is crucial to all the city symphonies. What was involved in engaging people in Philadelphia?

Tod: To start it all, we had a first meeting that included representatives from the Mayor's Office and the head of arts in the school system, as well as people representing choruses, after-school programs, and inner-city workshops. In collaboration with The Philadelphia Orchestra, we had already decided that choirs from all over the city, representing many different communities, would be at the heart of the project. Hence, the name “Philadelphia Voices.” We ended up with four choruses from different communities in the city—of different ages, different styles of singing, different levels of professionalism. And, for the launch in May last year, high school singers joined the orchestra to perform an early collaborative piece whose initial words—Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, and Democracy—gave voice to the project’s themes. 


Q: Personally, how did you initially approach the project?

Tod: An important step for me is to explore the city. What I like to do is go to a place alone, without anybody showing me around. I just watch and listen with no preconceptions at all. I then try to find out what issues and questions are most important to people, what sparks anguish and hope. It’s a combination of who's there, what the place sounds like, and what the “story” turns out to be.

Philadelphia is an incredibly gritty, unpretentious, authentic place where people are completely forthright. But it's also a very big city, very spread out and diffuse. It was disconcerting at first because I would ask people, “What do you think about Philadelphia? What do you like? What do you hate?” It was difficult to get people to say anything, unlike in any of the other cities where we've worked. I realized little by little that Philadelphia is a very local place with distinct neighborhoods as small as the block you live on, or even the building or house you live in, kind of like in the movie Rocky.

A lot of people didn't even really think of the city as a whole, even though I've never seen a place where so many people have a such a strong sense of civic engagement. Our many partners understood our project right away because lots of them had been working hard for a very long time to develop programs that give back to the city and connect people in powerful ways. It's really quite something because in a lot of places these days people talk about being civic-oriented but in Philadelphia, this attitude is turned into action in many ways, day in and day out.

I remember when I first went to Philadelphia for this project, it wasn’t long after the Pope had visited for the World Meeting of Families when a massive crowd had gathered to celebrate Mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Philadelphia Orchestra played that day, and its members told me that the experience of being there with a million other people and hearing the choirs singing together was something they would never forget. So, they asked me if I could do something even bigger than that, with my crazy musical ideas and all of our wonderful Media Lab technology.

I said I would try. I am never one to shirk from a challenge, not even a Pope-sized challenge! So that papal visit came to represent what it means to be an individual connecting to a local community and then to something expansively worldwide. Creating a visceral, musical sense of what that expansion feels like became a driving force for Philadelphia Voices

Q: What was the process for crowdsourcing sounds and music that would be part of Philadelphia Voices?

Tod: While I wanted to make something that would feel like my piece, of course, I also wanted for everybody who participated to have a sense of ownership. It wouldn’t be just crowdsourcing where I'd manipulate other people’s stuff, but something that we all would make together.

With our partners, including the orchestra, as well as via the local press and social media, we got the word out about how people could participate; not just the singers in the choruses but also anyone and everyone in the broader community. For about a year, I and my team from the Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group traveled often to Philadelphia to talk about the project, to meet people, to collect sounds and texts, to absorb the history and understand the present, and to contemplate the forces that might shape the city’s future.

Based on our explorations in Philadelphia, we extended software designed for other City Symphonies, such as Constellation by my student Akito van Troyer. We designed a special mobile app called Philadelphia Voices that made it easy for anyone to contribute audio or video of the city, and we developed a software environment called Nebula, by student Rébecca Kleinberger, which lets anyone use their voice to access and shape a multitude of other “voices” of the city.

I received sounds from all over Philadelphia—from parks and crowd chatter, waterfront and nature sound—and with my students, I explored many corners of the city. It now feels as if I met every single Philadelphian, each of whom had a story to tell, although that probably isn’t quite true. We accumulated, edited, and selected from a truly enormous sonic library of sizzling cheesesteaks, Super Bowl celebrations, Constitution birthday events, Mummers Parades, rare birds at the zoo, and much much more.

Tod: This process of looking, seeing, talking, and then listening to things is really powerful. People can feel and communicate things through music that they couldn't or wouldn’t do any other way. This Philadelphia Voices project has been an opportunity to make a whole community think and feel differently about the possibilities of their city—through music and through technology that allows anyone to interact with anyone else in a very fresh and unusual way.

Q: So, with the sounds and music in mind, what was your process for composing the ultimate piece? This is the first city symphony with a libretto, right?

Tod: Yes. In Philadelphia, unlike previous city symphonies projects, I realized that I needed words because the chorus is such a central element of the symphony. So, a major part of the project was to inspire, collect, and then assemble original texts from a wide range of Philadelphians. I did interviews with historians, workshops with teenage writers, discussions in elementary schools about democracy, bicycle rides throughout the city with poet-guides to engage in conversations with people we encountered, and countless other interventions to listen, to learn, and to annotate.

It was amazing. All over the city, people created songs and sounds, words, and wonderful surprises. I ended up with so much material that I was literally overwhelmed by about early December. What to do with all this? What story was emerging? What sounds and texts would be central to our Philadelphia story? I ended up with a big symphony—about 30 minutes long—with seven contrasting movements to be performed by quite an army onstage: the full Philadelphia Orchestra, several hundred singers, a massive audio system specially designed by my student Ben Bloomberg, all conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.


The Philadelphia Orchestra

Philadelphia Voices takes listeners on a journey—from the massive celebrations for the papal visit and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl victory; to overlapping stories of history, music and invention; to a wild block party that fills the whole city; to a desperate cry to listen to voices unheard; to a freeform musical exploration of democracy; and finally to a “hymn of brotherly and sisterly love” that evokes William Penn’s unfinished, utopian dream for Philadelphia, which can still guide Philadelphians and all of us to a better society.

It took a long time for this form to emerge, but to me, it sounds and feels like Philadelphia, like a way forward for the rest of us from the vantage point of this city that has been called “America’s great experiment.”


Q: After more than a year in Philadelphia, exploring its neighborhoods, meeting the people there, and now composing a musical portrait of the you still feel like an outsider, or do you feel more of a sense of belonging?

Tod: The whole project has been a powerful, totally immersive experience for me. Toward the end of the process, after almost a year, I began to feel like I was at home in Philadelphia. That feeling snuck up on me. It became more evident when the Eagles, the city’s NFL team that had never before managed to capture the national title, started doing really well. Nobody had expected that. I hadn’t really been following football, but as the Eagles fought their way to the Super Bowl, I realized, hey, here's this team that is exactly like the city: a constant underdog, playing soulfully and without pretention, never giving up, even when glory remained ever elusive.

Then, the Philadelphia Eagles made it to the Super Bowl, playing against the New England Patriots, my hometown team I was supposed to root for. The Eagles went into the big game as a longshot, with a second-string quarterback and no celebrity players. But they had spirit and grit and optimism. And I suddenly realized that I loved them, as I had come to love the city and the people who live there. I had become a Philadelphian.

That always happens in these City Symphony projects. I mean, it’s about the people I’ve met, the friends I've made, the discussions we’ve had, the amazing things I have learned. As we prepare for the world premiere performances of Philadelphia Voices in April, my deepest hope is that some essential part of what I have seen and heard in Philly will resonate with Philadelphians, that it will provide a fresh view of the many hidden wonders of this great city, open up new possibilities for optimism and engagement, create new contexts for citizens to listen to the city around them—and, more importantly, listen to each other—in powerful and productive ways.

Composer Tod Machover heads the Opera of the Future research group at the MIT Media Lab.

Acknowledgments: Philadelphia Voices was made possible through a generous grant from the Knight Foundation. Many thanks to all the members—graduate students, MIT undergrads, and staff—of the Media Lab’s Opera of the Future Group. We are grateful to The Philadelphia Orchestra and its musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, as well as to the 41 institutional partners in Philadelphia who are too numerous to list here. This project is all about a new model of creative collaboration. Without such great participants, none of this would have been possible.

Philadelphia Voices will premiere on April 5, 2018, with The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra led by its music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, featuring 250 singers from Philadelphia-area choruses—Westminster Symphonic Choir, Keystone State Boys Choir and Pennsylvania Girlchoir, Sister Cities Girlchoir. There will be two more performances, on April 6 and 7, in Philadelphia's Kimmel Center. The final performance of Philadelphia Voices will take place on April 10 in New York at Carnegie Hall, marking the first presentation of a City Symphony given outside the city for which it was written.  Visit this site for ticket information.

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