Music's Mad Scientist: Tod Machover

© Brad Swonetz/Redux

Composer Tod Machover debuts two symphonies, one inspired by Lucerne, in Switzerland, and one by Detroit. 

One is the jewel of the Swiss Alps, a medieval city at the foot of a cobalt lake. The other is the nucleus of America’s Rust Belt, only now emerging out of decay. Lucerne and Detroit couldn’t be more different. Yet composer Tod Machover, 61, has spent the last year shuttling back and forth in search of the sounds that represent each city.

This fall, he unveils both Symphony in D (as in Detroit) and A Symphony for Lucerne, orchestral performances that transform the sounds around these cities into spectacular—and surprisingly melodic—experimental performances. To assemble these sounds, he has enlisted local inhabitants to record the audio using a smartphone app that he developed. 

“If Lucerne is water, Detroit is rhythm. It’s not necessarily an even rhythm. It’s kind of crazy—Motown and techno-twisted,” he says. “Lucerne is one of the world’s most perfect cities. It’s timeless. Detroit is the opposite. It’s a very complicated city that fell apart and is now being reimagined.

Machover, the director of MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future Group, has been fusing classical music with digital technology since he was a teenager. In 1991 Yo-Yo Ma debuted Machover’s Hypercello, a tricked-out string instrument that uses computers to interpret gestures. The work eventually led to the software behind the blockbuster video game Guitar Hero. Now he has applied the technology to collaborative symphony-making, first debuting a piece in Toronto in 2013.

“I made these symphonies to have a dialogue,” he says. “These pieces are about what the city means to me and the people who live in it—what it was historically, what it is now, and what it will be in the future.

Symphony in D premieres on November 20 at Orchestra Hall, in Detroit; symphonyind.com. A Symphony for Lucerne premieres on September 5 at KKL Luzern
as part of the Lucerne Festival; sinfoniefuerluzern.ch.