Orchestra’s new crowdsourced choral work features ‘Philadelphia Voices’

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This week, the Philadelphia Orchestra premieres a new musical composition about its home city, by the city — in a way.

Boston composer Tod Machover has written “city symphonies” in Toronto, Perth, Detroit, and Edinburgh. Machover lands in a city, explores it through a tape recorder and hundreds of interviews with residents, and writes a large-scale work for orchestra.

He prefers places where he can weigh the good, the bad, and the ugly. Places populated by people who believe they live in a perfect city make him uncomfortable, he said.

“Here, I think you see all the sides of what’s possible, all the time,” Machover said. “It’s all mixed up. You can’t get away from it.”

“Philadelphia Voices” features the city’s proud history as the birthplace of democracy; a list of civic firsts, including libraries, zoos, electricity (Benjamin Franklin’s name is dropped many times); a paean to the block party; and an extended gush about this year’s Super Bowl win.

It is also about racism, redlining, and trash.

To make “Philadelphia Voices,” Machover introduced a mobile phone app that allows anyone to record a sound and upload it into a database. He collected about 8,000 sounds, which — directly or indirectly — influenced the music he wrote. A few of those sounds are played back as part of the compositional arrangement.

The music is a big sound, written for a full orchestra and a 250-voice choir made up of four area choral groups: the Westminster College choir, the Keystone Boy and Girl choirs, and the Sister Cities Girlchoir.

The libretto for the chorus was also crowdsourced, coming from several Philadelphia writers, including teenagers in the Mighty Writers after-school program.

Machover visited the program in West Philadelphia where he asked the young writers to spend 10 minutes dashing off a poem about the city.

“When I write, I don’t pay attention, I just want to get it out there,” said one writer, 16-year-old Jayda Hepburn. A junior in high school, she already has under her belt plenty of short stories, novellas, and two full-length novels, which she has slaved over with edits and rewrites.

Her poetry, on the other hand, is written completely in the moment. The poem she wrote for Machover was not altered from the paper she handed in after working on it for 10 minutes.

“When I wrote it, I was feeling, this is what I have to say. If I go back to it, I would be restricting myself,” she said. “Even if only fine-tuning, it’s very much a product of an emotion at a very specific time.”

High school junior Jayda Hepburn, sitting in her bedroom, wrote two librettos for "Philadelphia Voices." (Emma Lee/WHYY)
High school junior Jayda Hepburn, sitting in her bedroom, wrote two librettos for “Philadelphia Voices.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hepburn is constantly writing, on a laptop while sitting on her bed in the upstairs bedroom of the rowhome in Yeadon where she lives with her parents, both immigrants from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent.

Surrounded by sci-fi books and graphic novels, Hepburn often writes while simultaneously Skyping with her best friend. She’s devoted three years to working on a novel set in Russia called “Bolshoi.”

“There are magical blue aliens, and coups with the government and royalty,” she said.

Hepburn ended up writing two poems for Machover, one of them being about the mixture of conspicuous wealth in Rittenhouse Square, the gentrified coffee shops of University City and trash clogging the streets everywhere. That’s the one that pricked Machover’s ear.

“It ended with this idea of waiting for morning to love again. It was the first time she mentioned love in the poem,” he said. “I didn’t tell people to talk about love. But I think that idealism, and caring about others, is in the core of this city, even if it’s sometimes hidden and difficult.”

The second poem Hepburn wrote, “My House is Full of Black People,” begins in a house where “We are all too loud for our own good/ But I’m pretty sure we love each other.”

The poem progressively expands to the neighborhood, the city, the state, and the nation — while growing increasingly angry and belligerent, where people scream and “pray for the night to end/ and for mom to dry her tears.”

Machover took Hepburn’s poems, and many others, and set them to music on a large scale. Hepburn attended a rehearsal and couldn’t believe what her words sounded like when they came back to her out of the mouths of 250 singers.

“Straight-up, out-of-body experience. I didn’t remember half of this. One of the girls told me, ‘We rehearse this four days a week!’ ” she said. “To see this on this scale, not just to make the poem life, but to make a real piece of the city, it takes me out of it. I’m so blessed to have so many people care about this thing that I wrote.”

“Philadelphia Voices” will be performed three times this weekend, and then again next week as the whole ensemble — 350 musicians and all the writers who contributed — will take their Philly show to play New York’s Carnegie Hall.

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