THIS FRIDAY at 8 PM | Symphony in D, A Symphony by Detroit for Detroit

Last Updated by Zosette Guir on

From Noise to Music

Composer Tod Machover and the MIT Media Lab gathered 15,000+ sounds of the city to create a once-in-a-lifetime Symphony for Detroit. Dr. Tonya Matthews, chief executive officer and president of the Michigan Science Center, shares what it was like to be a part of Symphony in D:

The most surprising thing about Detroit is the welcome.

That "welcome" is definitely in the "got to feel it to believe it" category. The D has a reputation for being tough, scrappy, relentless, prideful, protective… and of course, full of musical and automotive genius. All of that is true and, like so many reputations and personas, it’s incomplete. This sense of “welcome,” “come on in,” and “glad to have you” is what I felt the most the moment I got here. I am not from Detroit, but I am officially Detroit on purpose. I came into this space with respect, curiosity, perhaps a good idea or two, and a humbled sense of downright fascination and, for that, I was rewarded with a whole lot of welcome. 

That welcome, that embracing of new voices and new ideas, is what gave me permission to write a poem about Detroit for a piece of music dedicated to Detroit in a place called Detroit in the first place. Welcoming or not, Detroit will protect itself if you step out of line. As we say ‘round the corner: Game recognize game. I appreciate that – and I also know that is why Detroit is still here.

The most fascinating thing about Detroit is the enormous tension between its unrelenting pride and its authentic self-deprecation. Detroit is proud and will defend itself against any and all insult, naysayer, and uninformed troll regardless of its status or yours. On the other hand - if I may be so bold about my newly beloved city - Detroit has a self-esteem problem. No one is harder on Detroit than itself. 

It is a marvelous balancing act. Perhaps this is the root of all the innovation for which Detroit is known. After all, necessity is the mother of invention and ingenuity. We got stuff we need to fix – and we are tireless in our determination to fix it every decade, every day. Get on board or get out of the way. This duality of the D became my muse and this is what is reinterpreted as the poem The Difference Between The Boom and The Bass. 

Every allusion in the poem, by the way, is true – give or take the appropriate moment in time referenced. Detroit requires that you get it right. So, I looked her up. Detroit's brand legacy is dominated by cars and Motown, and perhaps rightly so. But it's a shame the human attention span is so shallow because this town is and has always been a bottomless pit of genius.

cars assembly lines paved roads 8 hour workdays
and the night shift. your first broadcast news your
first phone number your first state fair. jiffy mix
tanks and bombers. bulletproof vests and vernors
our ice skating rink is bigger than rockefeller center’s
we are The Real McCoy 

All that said, what was this experience like? Well, my first reaction to being asked to create a piece for Symphony in D was sheer panic. Don't get me wrong: I love it when modestly famous, Pulitzer-nominated composers ask me to contribute to their latest masterpiece. I really do. But for all of the warm welcome and candid self-deprecation, Detroit has some very serious standards about who can speak for her. I – a non-native to Detroit – was being asked to channel the voice of Detroit by a non-Detroiter. Given that Todd (Machover, the composer) was still on the sunny-side up of the Detroit Welcome, I don't think he really understood what he was asking me to do - but I did. So, my first reaction was panic. But my second reaction was "Let's do this."

If you listen carefully, you will hear two voices threaded through the poem. The voice of Detroit: Bold, resilient, and defensive. And my voice, the newly adopted little sister: Humbled, tickled, and protective. Two voices brought together by an attitude that we have in common, that is to say, we are both wholly unapologetic.

progress is overrated
when you’ve already decided to be forever
this is not new
it’s next
that ain’t old it’s foundation

There are more stories behind the stories… like the story of being in another country and having to fly my mentee of 10 years in for the dress rehearsal because she knew how to imitate me or the story of how to go from afro puff to curly afro in less than 24 hours or fighting back tears the first time a woman in the audience from Detroit said I sounded just like Detroit and she was proud of me… but I’ve got work to do and you’ve got a documentary to watch.

So let me close with this: Symphony in D, the music, is powerful and weird, discordant and melodious, strident and rhythmic, and it will stick in your head. Symphony in D, the documentary, is as much about what and who Detroit is, as it is about how Detroit affects you when you step into her space – you’ll see that in Todd’s face and you’ll hear it in my voice – and that will stick in your heart.

If you are not from Detroit – or if you have forgotten Detroit – you need to come on over for a visit and experience this for yourself.

Don't miss Symphony in D, airing THIS FRIDAY AT 8 PM on Detroit Public TV.

One Detroit - Four million people. One story.

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