Composing Lucerne #1

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Tod Machover, July 5, 2015

After spending the last year listening to Lucerne and getting to know its people, I am now hard at work composing its musical portrait, Eine Sinfonie für Luzern. Of course I have been imagining all along how the many different sounds I have collected might fit together and what feeling this piece might have, but all of the magic happens when you sit down to make the many specific decisions – both large and small – for each specific piece.

First, I had to organize all of the sounds of Lucerne that have been collected since June 2014. To be honest, I received a lot more sound than I expected, so with a group of my students at the MIT Media Lab, it took several weeks just to get all the sounds in one place (making sure we didn’t forget any), to sort them by category (person, place, type, “feel”, etc.), and to listen carefully to every single one.

The next step with sounds has been to “carve them up,” finding the most interesting, special, provocative, beautiful moments in each recording. Since the sound files I received and recorded vary from very short (a second or two) to very long (minutes, or in some cases, an hour or two!), it takes a lot of time and care to do this well. It is a real art, in fact. Imagine what it is like to edit a recorded voice interview for a radio drama: you find the heart of the story, take out the extra breath sounds, the ‘ums’ and the ‘you knows’, and cut many minutes down to the essentials. I have needed to do the same thing with every single sound I received. Luckily, I have taught some of my students to help me with this work, since it is very meticulous and time-consuming.

Another process which has proceeded in parallel is the creation of original compositions by many young people in Lucerne using our Hyperscore software. This is quite a different activity than recording audio, since with Hyperscore you start with musical melodies and rhythms, piecing together sonic narratives bit-by-bit using lines and color. You can hear the music immediately on your computer, but it can also be turned into music notes to be played by live performers. For Eine Sinfonie für Luzern, I have picked about 20 terrific compositions – by students from age 7 to 17 – all expressing musically something personal about the place – which will be featured in the final work.

With both the recorded sounds and the Hyperscore pieces, I have spent the last weeks not only listening to them and getting to know them, but also imagining what special synergies and surprises could happen when one sound or piece blends into another to create new kinds of relationships. For me, allowing sounds and phrases to communicate in unusual ways is one of the great pleasures of working on these collaborative symphonies.

While living with these new sounds and compositions, I have also been creating my own original music – melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and sound-colors – that has been inspired by Lucerne. Some of this music tries to translate real sound – like the many forms of water in Lucerne – into instrumental sound, so that the orchestra can “play” the river or the lake or one of the city’s many fountains. Yet other music is more metaphorical, imitating the flowing of water with melody patterns or the buzz of conversation through beats and silences. Some of the music I have been composing is simply inspired by Lucerne, and – like all music – it is difficult to describe in words. But I think it has some of the beauty, simplicity, humility and stability that I have found in this remarkable place.

Lastly, I have organized all of this material into an 8-movement structure where each section has a special character, flowing one-to-the-other without break. Yet some of the wonderful people I have met during this process have continued to trade ideas with me while I compose the symphony. In fact, as I write this note, I am continuing to adapt and modify the ending of the piece to accommodate new ideas from my collaborators and new sound/music that I am receiving.

I have assembled all the pieces of the symphony at this point and am working out the details, finding the final magic. An enormous amount has already been done, and an enormous amount still needs to be accomplished. What makes me happiest is that what is emerging truly sounds and feels to me like Lucerne, in a way that cannot be expressed in words but only – as it happens – through music.

I’ll write again soon to let you know how things are developing, and can’t wait to share Eine Sinfonie für Luzern with you on September 5th. In the meantime, you know what I’m working on!

With warmest wishes from Waltham, Massachusetts,

Tod Machover

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