Hearing Detroit with American House

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By: Bryn Bliska, MIT Media Lab

Photos by: Rebecca Kleinberger, MIT Media Lab

Bryn Bliska is a Master’s student and Research Assistant in the Opera of the Future group at the MIT Media Lab. She is excited to be facilitating collaboration between the Opera of the Future team, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and many amazing Detroit residents and community institutions for Symphony in D.

We recently returned from another amazing visit to Detroit – my fifth time in the city over the past six months. As Symphony in D has developed, I’ve met a huge range of inspiring people. One of the partner organizations that I’ve most enjoyed collaborating with is American House, a collection of senior living communities across the state of Michigan with several locations in the Detroit metropolitan area. We were first approached by three women on the American House team – Kristen Keller, Angie Kadowaki and Veronica Fiegel – back in November at Symphony in D’s official press launch. They were excited at the prospect of getting their residents involved, and we were equally excited at the opportunity to learn about Detroit from some of the people that know it best: those that have spent decades, if not their entire lives, calling it their home. After some dialogue and brainstorming, we landed upon a wonderful idea for our collaboration that has unfolded in a very powerful way over the ensuing months.

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During the early part of 2015, the American House team worked with their residents to collectively generate lists of unique historic sounds of Detroit. We were introduced to so many sounds we might never have otherwise come across that speak to Detroit’s rich and complex culture: the voice of legendary Detroit Tigers sportscaster Ernie Harwell; the implosion of the famed Hudson’sdepartment store building in 1998; and the popping noise that marks the opening of a jar of Sanders Fudge, to name just a few. In February, Tod and I then had the chance to sit down with about a dozen residents from different American House communities to review these incredible lists. Hearing first-hand about the personal meanings embedded in each of these sounds, I was moved by the passion with which everybody spoke about their city, and their memories truly deepened my appreciation for Detroit. The residents’ openness and generosity in sharing their stories with us is representative of the great hospitality and kindness that so many other Detroiters have extended to all of us from the Opera of the Future team.

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After this wonderful discussion, the American House team proposed a perfect culminating event for this phase of our partnership, which took place during our visit last week. Tod and I, as well as Opera of the Future graduate students Rebecca Kleinberger and Charles Holbrow, met a number of American House residents (including many familiar faces) at the Detroit Historical Museum. The American House residents and staff had synthesized their ideas of important historic sounds into a “Top 20” list, and had actually tracked down audio and video footage of each of these to share with us. Kristen gave a presentation of the items on this list, which included the whistle of the boat that used to carry Detroiters to their beloved Boblo Island Amusement Park (open from 1898 until 1993), the theme songs of Better Made chips and Faygo soda, and footage from the 1967 riot.

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Once again, we had the great fortune to hear individuals’ reflections on these sounds during the presentation, and also got to continue some of these conversations as we explored the museum afterward. Kristen, Angie and Veronica also bestowed upon us some very decadent, absolutely delicious Detroit-made goods, including all of the iconic foods we’d heard so much about. Tod, Charles, Rebecca and I all left the museum with our hands full, literally, as well as with our hearts full of gratitude for the people of American House and appreciation for the incredible city that we have felt so welcomed into. Through their creativity and dedication, the American House residents and staff have already brought so much to Symphony in D – and, personally, to my experience and understanding of Detroit. So to all of these wonderful people, and to the many others I’ve had the great fortune to interact with, I say thank you from the bottom of my heart! It is a pleasure and honor to work with you, and I am excited for what’s to come as Symphony in D continues to grow and take shape.

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