Bagpipe drones, the quiet of Arthur’s Seat… all are music to Tod Machover’s ears, writes Ken Walton
Ever wondered what Edinburgh sounds like? There are things that come immediately to mind: the one-clock gun, the metallic clatter of trains as they negotiate the labyrinth of points into Waverley Station, the sedate hubbub of the Meadows and such recent irritations as the tram works.
One man who knows every sound associated with the city is Tod Machover, composer, technologist and professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. Since March he has been engaged in an Edinburgh International Festival commission – the creation of a collaborative orchestral composition that integrates sounds and impressions of Edinburgh sent to him by people from all over the world.
“There were three ways people could participate,” Machover explained last week from his MIT lab, where he was busy putting the finishing touches to the electronic element of the score. “They could simply send in recorded sounds; or they could play with sounds by means of Constellation or Cauldron – web-based apps developed by us that enabled them to make their own versions of everyone else’s ideas, including my own; or they could join a live stream event in July, which asked people online to choose music from previous Festivals they wanted to hear more of, fragments of which would be fused into the final piece.”
The outcome is a 12-minute single-movement work, Festival City, which will be premiered at the Usher Hall on 27 August by conductor Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and which combines both electronic and acoustic material.
Machover has done this sort of thing before, for the city of Toronto, but writing a piece about Edinburgh, he says, just emphasised how very different one city is from another.
“In Toronto, I started off with an acoustical score and narrative that was about exploring a large, sprawling city. It resulted in a proportionally large piece,” he says. “Edinburgh, on the other hand, is very compact with hills from which you can see all of the city. The geography defines its neighbourhoods, and the piece is shorter as a result.
But what specific aural images formed the basis of the Edinburgh work, aside from the church bells and inevitable bagpipes that quickly formed impressions in Machover’s mind?
“The one thing I noticed about Edinburgh is that it is a quiet city overall, with a very distinctive background noise,” he explains. “The buildings have a resonance wherever you seem to be that throws off a muted background of traffic noise. It’s not like the din you get in New York, more like traffic chamber music. The combination of that and snatches of bagpipe drones acts like a cantus firmus [the fixed point melody around which Renaissance composers wove their freely invented counterpoint] around which the narrative of the piece evolves.” At the heart of that narrative is the symbolic presence of Arthur’s Seat. “It rises out of the city, right there on the edge, and when you climb to the top there’s a quiet you normally only find in the Alps above the tree line,” says Machover. “That image sits at the heart of the piece – a moment when you’re there right at the top, before suddenly trying to make it back down to Festival world.”
At a deeper level, he adds, “is the combination of great beauty and clarity and the layers of history and experience, those things that are not so obvious.”
As for the creative public input, this is a line of inquiry that is central to Machover’s belief in opening the doors to mass creativity by way of technology. The important thing here, he says, is the two-way process.
“Social media has exploded and the promise of the internet is incredible. I have two teenage daughters. In their world, when a new piece comes out, say by Lady Gaga, people listen to the original once or twice, then make their own versions, and what gets sent around has modifications, so you could have 100 threads going around at any time.
“It would be so much more interesting if these ideas could go back and forth. People like a discussion. That’s what I’ve done with Festival City. It’s not just my piece, it’s not just for sending around, it’s a real collaboration.”
Machover’s Edinburgh project has embraced online participation as far afield as China, Turkey and Thailand. “It’s been a marvellous way of encouraging people to listen to the world around them.”
How very John Cage. “Not quite,” Machover argues. “I think what Cage did was to take the world for what is was – beautiful enough to listen to. I’m trying to find and extract the music. That makes it more interesting, like what happens when Beethoven and bagpipes collide.”
Sounds like Edinburgh alright.
MORE INFO: Tod Machover’s Festival City will premiere at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 27 August
Originally published in The Scotsman