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Mummers and sizzling Philly cheesesteaks get their Philadelphia Orchestra moment

MIT composer Tod Machover brings his latest "crowdsourced symphony" to the Philadelphia Orchestra after sampling the sounds of Philadelphia on the streets.

Composer Tod Machover at Pat’s King of Steaks, where he sampled the sound of sizzling cheesesteaks for his new piece, “Philadelphia Voices.”
Composer Tod Machover at Pat’s King of Steaks, where he sampled the sound of sizzling cheesesteaks for his new piece, “Philadelphia Voices.”Read moreCourtesy Philadelphia Orchestra

Suffering for art took on frigid new meaning for composer Tod Machover while creating his new symphony for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

His Philadelphia Voices couldn't possibly live up to its name without Machover experiencing the Mummers, so there he was at the parade on  New Year's Day. Remember how cold it was? "My butt was frozen to the metal bleachers at the viewing stand," said the brainy, bushy-haired Machover.

He pursued the very soul of the city for his new choral/orchestral work, the eighth "crowd-sourced symphony" the MIT-based composer and inventor has written or mentored in cities from Detroit to Perth. It will be presented  at the Kimmel Center this week (and on April 10 at Carnegie Hall).

In addition, the music will incorporate field recordings of real-life Philadelphia that will spring from 30 loudspeakers in Verizon Hall.

Sizzling cheesesteaks would have to be in there somewhere. But for a while, they were not. Initially, Machover concluded the sound was too subtle.

Subtle? Cheesesteaks?

He went back to Pat's King of Steaks with microphones almost touching the stove. So cheesesteaks will have a solo – a little one – "accompanied by three 'cooking' percussionists," he said.

History, Philly kids, SEPTA

The symphony's creation coincided with a guest professorship at the Curtis Institute of Music, allowing Machover numerous visits to Philadelphia, with local historian Jack McCarthy pointing him toward various nerve centers.

He visited obvious sites, like the Franklin Institute, the National Constitution Center, and the Museum of the American Revolution, and also held a summer workshop for middle school students at Drexel University. "We broke them into groups and each made a list of their favorite sounds in Philadelphia, which was fabulous," he said. "Lots of them were nature sounds, like mosquitos and bees. Also SEPTA – sounds of the doors opening."

Mighty Writers, which mentors young writers ages 7 to 17, was also part of the mix. And they didn't pull any punches. Jayda Hepburn, a 16-year-old Academy of Notre Dame student, contributed extensively to the texts in Philadelphia Voices, about praying "for the night to end, for mom to dry her tears and for someone to f-ing listen."

"I wouldn't want anybody to get anything fake — or just, 'I love this city because it's so great,' " she said. "Every city has genuine problems. If I'm showing only the good of the city, I'm not doing it justice."

Where zoo birds meet sopranos

Meanwhile, Machover and the orchestra put out the word over the internet inviting everybody and anybody — via an app developed with Hyperscore software — to send in sound contributions that typify their Philadelphia. Roughly 7,000 came in, often sung. The finished piece, one imagines, would have to be something of a mosaic. Or what?

"For Toronto, I created a kind of dialogue between city and orchestra with materials passed back and forth …. For Perth, I created sonic hybrids where music and nature — including swarms of the loudest, densest flies I've ever heard — blend to form extended hybrids," Machover said.

"In Philadelphia Voices, I created a kind of counterpoint between collected sounds, instruments and voices." Mostly, they'll be heard in distinct layers, though at one point, birds from the Philadelphia Zoo take over a vocal line from the sopranos.

Such feats are possible because Machover has spent much of his life in the technological vanguard of electronic music composition. Having spent formative years at Paris' famous avant-garde institute IRCAM, the 64-year-old composer now runs the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab's Opera of the Future group.

His 55 major compositions include any number of "unplugged" pieces with a relatively minimal electronic element, including Schoenberg in Hollywood, which premieres later this year at Boston Lyric Opera. His biggest success, perhaps, is the opera Death and the Powers, about a dying billionaire who seeks immortality by downloading himself into his possessions.

High tech with a human touch

Machover's electronic music revolution has been a friendly one that has included collaboration with mainstream musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma. Often, his considerable MIT resources take ideas already out there and make them better.

Philadelphia Orchestra audiences have encountered works by Chinese composer Tan Dun that similarly incorporate field recordings and videos but are presented in a low-tech manner that's easily derailed by performance circumstances. Machover makes such ideas work dependably in the real world.

The starting point — after making recordings at places like Pat's Steaks — is a converted barn alongside his Boston-area home whose rusticity charmingly contrasts with high-tech control panels that offer Machover a range of possibilities that would've made Beethoven apoplectic. You might sum up his life by what's on his piano: a book of Debussy pieces plus a disc titled Dick Clark All Time Hits Volume 3.

"This is more like writing an opera than a symphony, with all of the voices and then a chorus," he said. "An orchestra is one way to represent a society, but in some ways, voices are better. But I've always thought of this project not just as a portrait of Philadelphia, but an opportunity for Philadelphia to make a statement to others … on what democracy means … and what's at stake."

Come into my lab …

Technology that allows the piece to speak as clearly as possible is still being developed at Media Lab, whose hallways are a journey into the future. Just inside the doorway, Machover bumps into a friend who has engineered a breakthrough with "smart pills" that target often-fatal conditions. In Machover's lab, there's a white cube that may be the concert hall of the 22nd century. Its undulating walls are a canvas for sight and sound, allowing the auditorium itself to be the instrument that composers write for.

The priority of the moment, though, is a sound design that makes the recorded voices from Philadelphia equally audible in every corner of the acoustically variable Verizon Hall — without losing sight of the essential goal: "We're thinking of how music is always present in the voice, this primordial instrument that most of us possess," said graduate student Rebecca Kleinberger.

Watching such focused, committed students, you have to wonder if a piece so specific to Philadelphia will have a life beyond the forthcoming flurry of performances.  Local composer Robert Maggio wrote a conceptually similar piece enshrining the scenic town of Lambertville, N.J. His composition, At the River, included church bells and geese and hasn't been performed since its 2005 premiere. Some have called the piece "zip-code specific."

"I found that disheartening," said Maggio, "but I'd do it all over again."  How often do usually solitary composers enjoy this kind of community involvement?

And such projects may have a different kind of legacy. "The Detroit piece mobilized a huge amount of people and changed things for the orchestra," Machover said. "Philadelphia is also about society and what democracy means. And that should have a universal audience."

One Detroit critic said the money spent on one of Machover's city symphonies could finance three or four conventional works for orchestra. The actual cost is hard to pinpoint in a project with so many components, though a ballpark figure for Philadelphia Voices would be a relatively low $200,000.

This is where Machover's usual good humor temporarily evaporates. "I'm not taking that criticism for this [piece]," he said. "I've been borrowing from other budgets to do this. You can make other criticisms of this piece. But not that."