‘…we seek to enhance music as a performance art, and to develop its transformative power as counterpoint to our everyday lives.’
It’s the second part of this statement, by Opera of the Future, that sits at the heart of Philadelphia Voices, part of Tod Machover’s movable feast, City Symphonies. Performed at the city’s Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center (and later at Carnegie Hall NYC), the recital counterposed recordings from the everyday lives of Philadelphians within the envelope of Machover’s dense score for orchestra and voice.
“That is part of Tod’s genius,” said Ben Bloomberg, Machover’s technical and artistic collaborator. “We have so many recorded sounds, the challenge is to find the spatial resolution to place each element without it feeling crowded. Tod wanted his audience to be able to zoom in on each sound individually, whether voice, instrument or recording, as you would do at a natural, unamplified concert. It is d&b Soundscape that provided the width and space to make this possible.”
“We are presenting a live performance in a reverberant concert hall with full orchestra, 350 voices, and the collected sounds of the city,” was Bloomberg’s succinct description of the ensemble that included the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, Sister Cities Girlchoir, and Commonwealth Youth Choirs.
Bloomberg engaged the services of Specialized Audio Visual Inc. (SAVI) to help address the technical challenges presented by the piece. “Verizon [Hall] seats 2,500 people; it’s not a deep auditorium but is quite tall,” describes Matt Bell, SAVI’s project manager for Philadelphia Voices. “The system we installed for Tod was small for a room this size, mostly d&b Y-Series loudspeakers with a few E6 for front fills and V-SUBs for low end support, all powered by D20 amps with a Yamaha CL5 out front. We used d&b DS10 for breakouts, and had a DS100 in the middle. The DS100 is the matrix and signal processing platform of the d&b Soundscape system.
“This was a 180 degree rendering of Soundscape, just five line arrays – all Y8 – set across the top of the concert stage were needed. There was no surround system. The orchestra was un-mic’d so completely natural, the choir was mic’d, and there were the recordings all of a piece. Tod and Ben have a unique approach; most of the recorded material is crowd sourced, they created a phone app which allowed the whole city to contribute, and they did record some things themselves.”
In an online video, Machover describes recording a Philadelphia icon, the Philly cheesesteak being cooked at Pat’s King of Steaks. “Not only did they let me put my microphone almost on the griddle when the cheesesteaks were sizzling, the cook tried to tell me that the cheesesteaks weren’t so bad for you. That’s all part of the score.”2
How Bloomberg dealt with that one instance is revealing of the whole artistic ethos. “The recordings were positioned virtually in space around the orchestra; the choir mic’s positioned according to their real life location on stage. As an example, even with the sopranos up stage left, the reinforcement is incredibly natural with the PA all but disappearing, even while adding serious SPL.
“Many of the field recordings were binaural, so we were able to put the audience inside the experiences that Tod captured. For the cheesesteak, you’d experience the voice of the cook on center; the noise of cooking in the background moved around as things were flipped or scraped on the griddle. The cook moved in front of the sizzling food and that changed the way you’d hear those noises. In the auditorium, that’s exactly how you experienced it, as if you were in the position Tod stood in when he made the recording.
“For the choir, what you saw is what you heard, so too with the orchestra. And although one was live, the other through the system, they both sounded entirely natural. This was not easy; we put a lot of care into the assembly and placement of the three elements in the mix, to ensure there is always something to focus on. In that sense Soundscape was fantastic in allowing the audience to engage in intimate fashion with the performance.
“That’s what separates Soundscape from similar products on the market. I’ve worked with many of those systems over the years; often you get a good delay matrix or a good panner, but not the two together. With Soundscape you do, and it is integrated with a 3D model of the room in d&b ArrayCalc, so it’s the best of all worlds.
“The balance of delay and panning is especially difficult in a concert hall which is not meant for amplified music. For one part of the piece, Tod needed the audience to be able to find and listen to a single voice in the choir – it was possible to pick her right out of the crowd of 350 singers because your ears told you where to look. Soundscape does that so well; it would have never worked with other systems,” concluded Bloomberg.
Photography: Jessica Griffin