I sat on the edge of my seat through the thirty minute performance in utter delight and amazement. The cacophony of sounds, while disconcerting to some, spoke deeply to my heart. I’ve always loved playing and singing cutting edge music.
It’s rare that one has an opportunity to attend a world premiere of a major orchestral piece. Gary and I just happened to be in the “D” (Detroit) on Friday morning, November 20 to hear Todd Machover’s Symphony in D, performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). Detroit has taken on many nicknames over the decades, including Motown, the Motor City, Hockeytown, Rock City or most recently, “the D.” Naturally, this symphony was composed around the note D natural.
Machover, who is a professor of Music and Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has been working in recent years on works that he calls city symphonies. In 2010 the Toronto Symphony Orchestra first approached Machover about establishing a community dialogue and collaboratively producing a work that would reflect the uniqueness of the city by including real sounds from Toronto.
After the success of Toronto, Machover was commissioned to compose “sonic portraits” of Edinburgh, Perth and Luzerne, capturing the pulse of each city. It came as no surprise, then, that the DSO, along with the John D. and James L. Knight Foundation, heard about this project and invited Machover to compose a similar “crowd-sourced” symphony for Detroit. Leonard Slatkin, DSO conductor since 2008, has made a name for the orchestra by modeling the adventurous and creative spirit of Detroit.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra reflects the struggles of Detroit to reinvent itself after the city emerged in 2014 from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. In 2010 the Detroit Symphony Orchestra canceled its entire season when musicians went on strike after a $5.3 million deficit on a budget of $30.4 million. The DSO subsequently focused its energies on moving out into the surrounding suburbs, becoming more visible and performing in smaller ensembles in smaller venues, including the church I serve.
Machover launched the city symphony project a year ago by inviting the “D” to participate in the “Symphony in D.” He asked the public to record and share their favorite sounds of Detroit through a mobile app created by Machover and his colleagues at MIT. The recorded sounds were organized by geographical location, thus creating a “sound map” that the community could listen to and “recombine into soundscapes” with another app called “Constellation.” Sounds included mechanical noise from auto assembly plants, children’s musical practices, nature sounds at Belle Isle, the People Mover and sporting events.
Machover explained that his goal was “to capture the beauty and intensity of Detroit, to express the driving, pulsating quality of the city while also representing its quiet, gentle side; to provide an uplifting and inspiring vision without simplifying the city’s complexities; and to share Detroit’s unique power and potential with everyone, both here in Detroit and around the world, at this special moment and far into the future.” The word that came to my mind was incarnation. The purpose of the Symphony in D is to embody the essence of Detroit in thirty minutes of sound.
After we found our seat, Gary initiated a conversation with the woman sitting in front of us. She said, “I’m a little on edge. I’m just apprehensive about listening to this piece. I don’t know what to expect.” Meanwhile, I was quivering with anticipation!
In a time of conversation between Leonard Slatkin and Todd Machover right before the performance, Machover explained that the purpose of the Symphony in D is to bring the people of Detroit together, to inspire and heal through the power of music. Todd and his colleagues collected 15,000 thousand sounds of Detroit, including a hundred hours of audio, and used 8,000-9,000 sounds in the actual composition. This is a symphony of the people for the people.
Symphony in D was originally going to include only orchestral sounds and city sounds. However, as Machover learned to know the city through many visits, he was struck by the importance of the people who actually submitted the sounds. He said, “Although the rhythm and bass – the crackling energy – found in the streets and parks and everywhere in Detroit has shaped this symphony, it is the people I have met here – an extraordinary collection of visionary, independent and courageous individuals – who have most deeply impacted the sound and feel of the work.”
Machover realized that if the Symphony in D was to be an incarnation of the city of Detroit, it needed to include the actual words and presence of Detroiters themselves in the performance. African American poets, a Chaldean choir, senior citizens and school children all represented different perspectives of Detroit in the symphony.
I had a big smile on my face for thirty minutes. The chaos of sounds may have been distasteful to the woman in front of us, but to me it was a sign of the kingdom of God in our midst. While the symphony may have seemed like thousands of discordant sounds, it was also a visual and aural symbol of the intentional and transformative diversity of our city and world. The Symphony in D is a symphony of the streets because Detroit, the home of Motown, sings out of tune on purpose. Detroit owns its own rhythm, its own song, its own hope.
As the symphony moved toward its culmination, we heard two poems, including “The Difference Between the Boom and the Bass,” by JaHispster and “Memories and Dreams” by Marsha Music. Then children from the Detroit Achievement Academy expressed their dreams for Detroit over the pulsating rhythm of the orchestra. “My dream for Detroit is that people will say compassionate and kind things to those who are different from them.” “My dream for Detroit is that I will look outside and won’t just see garbage and litter but a clean and happy neighborhood.” “My dream for Detroit is that people will not get killed for no reason.”
After the Symphony in D concluded, I said to Gary, “Wow! Wow! Wow! That was spectacular!” Then Gary asked the woman in front of us, “What did you think?” She shook her head with a frown on her face and said decisively, “I didn’t like it at all!” Out of the chaos of Detroit, the woman heard discord, fear, hopelessness. I heard peace, hope, joy – and incarnation.
The season of Advent has begun. It’s a time when we ponder the mystery of the incarnation, which means “an embodiment or representation in human form.” In the fullness of time, God decided to send God’s only son into our world. Jesus became one of us in order to show us the vulnerability and power of God’s self-giving love. In the same way, the Symphony in D has incarnated Detroit, representing the heart of the city through sound.
- During this Advent season, how will your church incarnate God’s love in your community and world by gathering up, being present to and collaborating with all those on the margins to bring in God’s kingdom?
- How will you write your own symphony this Advent in your everyday life as a disciple of Jesus Christ? How will you embody the faith, hope and joy of Christ’s coming?
- Just as city symphonies are unique to their context, how are the ministries of your church a symphony on the streets of your town or city?
- How will you represent the grace of a God who welcomes the immigrants, embraces the strangers and reaches out to the poorest of the poor?
If you can’t see we’re not done yet
If you don’t recognize the genius
in refusing to be generic
if you still can’t tell the difference
between the boom and the bass
you’ve never been to Detroit.
But don’t worry we’ll still be here
When you decide to learn.