Preparing to Capture a City Through Sound


Hi there! I’m Chantine, a (recently graduated) undergrad researcher with the Opera of the Future group in the Media Lab, giving you an update with the group with regards to the forthcoming city symphonies.

Recently, Tod and Co. have been quite busy with final preparations for A Symphony for Lucerne, to be debuted September 5th, even as we ramp up for Symphony in D, coming November 20th. It’s beautifully hectic, this city symphony making process that is. As such, it is quite fun, so I would like to share with you some of our experience here at the Opera of the Future of producing Collaborative City Symphonies like A Symphony for Lucerne and Symphony in D coming from the perspective of one who assists and observes the collaborative process.

Phase one is listening. Listening to the city, its voice, its heartbeat.

One goal of this project is to get as much of a grasp on the city as possible through music, so Tod (and team) spends many months, even years, getting to know the social and sonic fabric of a city. What makes Lucerne tick; what makes Detroit sing, and dance? Are they understood? Misrepresented? Changing, and if so, into what? For a more detailed look at the technicalities of listening, Tod’s students Bryn Bliska and Charles Holbrow have shared their love and expertise for the act of listening once before on the Lucerne blog.

Heavily overlapped in timing with phase one, phase two is recording.

The sounds of a city need to be preserved at least long enough for Tod to incorporate them into the final symphony, so the team tries to capture everything it hears. This phase is also when the hands-on collaboration begins between Tod, the Media Lab, and the citizens of the cities. The research assistant team and Tod bring their recording equipment on listening trips to each city and capture teamwork moments with organizations like American House or YouthVille in Detroit or musical improvisation sessions with young musicians in Lucerne. In addition to such collaborations, we collect the sounds submitted by the city citizens via the web and mobile apps, which we highly encourage you to contribute to if you are ever in these cities yourself!

Sound editing.

LucerneTodCharlesTod has trained a small army of graduate and undergraduate researchers to assist in pulling out the most special, provocative moments from the recordings, which can range from mere seconds to hours at times. We each do this in different ways, so I’ll share PhD student Akito van Troyer’s process in detail as one example –

“First, I like to create  “listening machines” – programs that can listen to and automatically cut interesting segments from sound files. These programs analyze audio features such as pitch and loudness, determine onsets of sound events, and identify the unique timbres throughout the sound file. Some examples of tools I use for this are Sonic Annotator and SuperCollider.

Next is batch processing. Once the sounds are cut up, I add fade in/out effects and normalize sound files using SoX and bash scripts to automate this process.

Finally, I always listen to the samples myself. The ‘listening machines’ I make are not perfect and listening with my ears allows me to make final editorial decisions about each sound sample. If the sample is not interesting, I edit the sample further using Amadeus Pro, which has a built in sound file batch conversion that has yet to let me down.

I keep an archive of sound files as I edit them so I can return to them anytime to repeat these three steps and produce a variety of interesting samples.”

The fourth and final phase is that of composition!

All the cut up samples and recordings are collected, along with compositions submitted by the public via applications such as Constellation and Hyperscore, and compiled for Tod to listen to and do his thing. He’ll incorporate characteristic compositions and recordings directly into the piece, compose instrumental music inspired by the sounds, or do something new altogether! After many creative storms and synergies, these symphonies will be debuted for all to enjoy.

Stay tuned for more updates on symphony creation as Symphony for Lucerne and Symphony in D take shape!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s