Listening to What Akron Sounds Like
by David C. Barnett
For the past year, a cross-section of Akron residents have participated in building a symphony based on what their city sounds like. Using a smartphone app devised by M.I.T. engineers, these Akronites collected audio samples of traffic noise, church bells, high school hallways, and dozens of other local soundscapes that were transformed into a musical work.
35-year-old composer Clint Needham figured it would be easy to put together the Sounds of Akron project.
"Even when you say 'The Sounds of the City'," he says, "it sounds really stylized, like it’s on a TV show --- it would be car horns, and traffic, and people shouting….it’s maybe New York City, right?"
Or maybe Paris.
George Gershwin famously brought the sounds of the city to the concert hall in his 1928 composition, “An American in Paris”. Over eight decades later, M.I.T. Professor of Music and Media, Tod Machover, created a way for composers to incorporate actual urban sounds into their works. He tried it out four years ago with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The idea was picked-up by the Knight Foundation for new works --- first for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and now, for the Akron Symphony.
At a recent rehearsal, the orchestra tried out Clint Needham’s new composition.
"The preconceived sounds that I had in mind," he says, "those really industrial city sounds --- it was hardly about that, in terms of what the people submitted."
The sounds submitted by Akronites run the gamut from a wood thrush in a city park, to a kid jamming away on a rubber band, to the sound of a baby’s heartbeat.
Needham says some of the sounds were cleaned-up a bit electronically, to make them more distinct. Jessi Thacker of West Akron took the assignment of capturing a nightly, neighborhood train very seriously, armed with her smart phone.
"I tried to catch the sound for at least a week and a half," she says. Like, I would never have my phone near me, when the train was going by, or I just wouldn’t get it quick enough. So, one day, I was just waiting around and and I grabbed my phone and I ran outside, and held it up into the air and managed to get a good enough sound!"
It’s Akron Symphony conductor Christopher Wilkins’ task to blend the submitted recordings of urban noise, with concert musicians imitating city sounds. Wilkins says that’s part of a more recent tradition.
"It’s mostly a 20th century phenomenon that composers would have been interested in capturing some of the sounds of the city, like car horns. I think it wasn’t considered appropriate material for art. Each generation has its own idea about what is appropriate."
The Sounds of Akron symphony was preceded by a selection from Gustav Mahler --- a composer from a previous generation, who was a master of incorporating the sounds of everyday life into a symphony.
"He, of course, also famously said, 'the symphony must embrace everything --- it must represent the world.'"
The train that runs through West Akron every night at 9:00 is a regular part of Jessi Thacker’s world. And even though it freaks the dog out, she says she doesn’t really mind it.
"The sound of the train is, kind of, the sound of our home," she says.
Saturday night, a number of other Akron residents will be listening for their own sounds of home, coming from the concert stage.