Tod Machover recording voices for a similar project in Edinburgh

If you see a pack of teenagers singing, hooting, howling and shouting as they march down Germantown Avenue this weekend, don’t be alarmed. They’re doing it for democracy.

Saturday’s traipse down the cross-city corridor will be led by MIT Media Lab music professor and inventor Tod Machover. It’s one of several meetups Machover has planned when he returns to Philly (see details below) for another swipe through its aural fabric to collect sounds for his latest undertaking: a semi-crowdsourced symphony called “Philadelphia Voices.” The symphony will be performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra next spring.

That’s right, come April 2018, the illustrious Kimmel Center stage will be filled with shouts and screams and yowls and yips from the street.

How’d Machover convince orchestra bigwigs to let this happen? Well, he has quite the reputation. He’s mounted similar projects in various cities around the world — Toronto, Lucerne, Detroit, Perth — turning each one’s urban cacophony into a unique overarching symphony. All have been hailed as successes.

In Philly, his goal goes beyond just capturing the city’s zeitgeist. He wants, through his music and the research surrounding its creation, to explore the very foundations of what makes America great.

“It’s a very important time now to be thinking about democracy,” said Machover in an interview, making sure to speak in generic terms without naming names. “The stresses it’s under, and where it’s going, and what kind of society we want to be.”

He added that obviously, Philly isn’t the only place in the country where people are feeling forced to reexamine what U.S. democracy means, but it was codified here.

“Does it matter that it all happened in Philadelphia?” he asked rhetorically.

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Although Machover lives in Massachusetts, where he works, he’s already visited Philly enough to become well-versed in what the city is all about. Calling it “one of the great sanctuary cities,” he noted its high rate of immigration and that “the presence of very recent immigrants is very strong and real.”

One of his first recording sessions for this project was on Constitution Day 2017, with the group of people who’d won a lottery to be part of the special naturalization ceremony conducted on the anniversary of the Constitution’s signing. He captured voices of brand new citizens from every corner of the world, asking questions like “What do you think about the state of the country? Did you bargain for such a complex moment to become an American?”

Their answers will become part of the symphony, woven in with countless other spoken tones he’s collected, both during in-person interviews and via a free “Philadelphia Voices” app (iPhone; Android) that allows people to record themselves and upload clips to be used. The app has received close to 1,000 submissions so far, but Machover is still looking for more (submit by Thanksgiving to be included).

He’s anticipating another surge in uploads when a sister app developed in collaboration with Google is released next week.

Called “Nebula,” it allows you to navigate a “vocal cloud” of all the Philly sounds collected so far as you record, creating what Machover describes as “an aura around your voice” that will hopefully encourage you to make creative noises.

“Our hypothesis — and it worked, we tried it out in the Kimmel Center lobby a couple weeks ago,” he said, “is that it would liberate people to use their voice in imaginative unusual ways, instead of just talking.”

The concentration on voices is new. Machover’s past symphonies have relied more on ambient sounds, like the rumble of a train or splash of a fountain, played over speakers to mesh with the live orchestral performance. In Philly, a mix of choruses will join the orchestra on stage to present many of the captured voices in the piece.

“The voice is us,” he said, “and groups of voices suggest community.”

This weekend, in addition to the walk down Germantown Avenue, Machover will be attending the Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual Halloween concert, visiting the Philadelphia Zoo and biking around South Philly with local spoken word artist Jacob Winterstein.

If you want to catch Machover in person to contribute, he said, the best place will be at the Museum of the American Revolution. He’ll be recording answers to the question “What does democracy mean now?” from 12 to 2 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. Otherwise, just download the app and do your thing.

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.