How a Philly Cheesesteak Goes From the Grill to Carnegie Hall

Posted April 9, 2018 6:07 p.m. EDT

PHILADELPHIA — “Can I get one with whiz, no onion?” a hungry young man called into the window of Pat’s King of Steaks. The counterman deftly flipped a sizzling skein of thinly sliced steak onto a roll and then applied a lacquer of Cheez Whiz to create a classic Philly cheesesteak.

Taking it all in with a digital recorder and high-end binaural microphones one day in February was composer Tod Machover, who writes symphonies about cities around the world and brings some of their most characteristic sounds into the concert hall.

Machover was nearly finished with his latest work, “Philadelphia Voices,” which the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin will perform at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, but he was not quite satisfied with an earlier attempt to capture the sizzle of a cheesesteak. So he went back for a second helping.

This time the steak really sang.

Then, after a brief sound-gathering detour in the heart of Philadelphia — the beating Giant Heart exhibition that young museumgoers walk through at the Franklin Institute — he raced through traffic to get back to the Kimmel Center, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which commissioned the work. He was due to present his score to Nézet-Séguin for the first time.

“I got a really good recording today, finally, of Pat’s cheesesteak,” the composer told the maestro. “I put my head near enough to sear my hair!”

It was a big day for Nézet-Séguin: The Metropolitan Opera had just announced that morning that he would become its music director next season, two years early — a post he will hold in tandem with his job in Philadelphia. But he was all business, going over the “Philadelphia Voices” score and the logistics of how to perform it, asking who would join the orchestra to play Machover’s digital recordings on the keyboard.

“It’s not rocket science, but you need to be on the money,” Nézet-Séguin said.

Before he wrote “Philadelphia Voices,” Machover spent months making field recordings like the one at Pat’s and collecting a library of 8,000 sounds that Philadelphians submitted to him through a special smartphone app. “I really am committed to listening to every single thing,” he said, estimating that he had collected more than 100 hours of recorded sounds.

Machover stands at the intersection of composition and computation — he has been a professor of music and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab since it was founded in 1985 and was the first director of musical research at the contemporary music center founded for Pierre Boulez in Paris. To help organize his library of Philadelphia sounds, he used software developed at MIT called Constellation, which can analyze hundreds of sound files by volume, frequency and shape, then visually display them.

“Philadelphia Voices” is the latest in a series of Machover symphonies inspired by cities. His Detroit piece, “Symphony in D,” featured the sound of a Henry Ford engine. His work about Lucerne, Switzerland, “A Symphony for Lucerne,” evoked that city’s interconnecting water systems, from the nearby Alps to Lake Lucerne to the Reuss River to the fountains dotting the old town.

For Philadelphia he was trying something new: a big choral work with texts by young poets about democracy, Philadelphia’s innovations, its struggles, the gerrymandering that dilutes the political power of black residents, the city’s block party traditions and its sometimes arcane parking rituals. It was to be sung by more than 200 people from several choirs with ties to the city and its surroundings: the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Keystone State Boychoir and Pennsylvania Girlchoir, and the Sister Cities Girlchoir.

Machover was initially unsure about the cheesesteak.

“In each of these cities, I’ve tried to stay away from the kind of obvious: the bagpipe in Edinburgh or the didgeridoo in Australia,” he said. “But if you find those things with the right angle it’s really important. So when I went home and actually listened to the cheesesteak recordings, I realized how very beautiful they were.”

He decided to give the sandwich a solo, accompanied by percussion.

Last Wednesday, the night before the premiere, the orchestra and chouses gathered in the Kimmel Center for a rehearsal.

“We need to fine-tune a few moments,” Nézet-Séguin told the small invited audience. “The first moment, actually, is about the cheesesteak.”

Machover looked on from the seats, surrounded by graduate students from the MIT Media Lab who helped bring the piece to life. His edited recording began to play, and a few musicians from the orchestra slowly added textures that mimicked the sounds of Pat’s — with metallic percussion instruments evoking clanking spatulas and a rain stick suggesting the sizzling steak.

Finally, it was time for the premiere Thursday. The audience listened attentively as the choirs evoked more than two centuries of their city’s history and struggles. Midway through the piece, the performers grew quiet. A set of 40 loudspeakers brought in for the piece played the final moment of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl victory in February. A few members of the audience cheered.

Then the listeners grew silent as a mysterious new sound began to unfurl. As it grew clearer, there were murmurs of recognition and then a few chuckles. The cheesesteak was a hit.

Event Information:

‘Philadelphia Orchestra’

Tuesday at Carnegie Hall; 212-247-7800, carnegiehall.org.