Given the task of channeling Philadelphia’s spirit through an orchestra, composer Tod Machover turned to the city’s food and drink scene for some of his inspiration — and for the most prominent solo in his Philadelphia Voices, he tabbed the city’s star performer: the cheesesteak.
The piece, which premiered April 5 at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra as an homage to the City of Brotherly Love. Machover, an MIT-based composer who works with unconventional sounds and music technology, has previously created pieces based on Toronto and Detroit as well as Edinburgh, Scotland, Lucerne, Switzerland, and Perth, Australia.
“Philadelphia’s a bit of a quiet city in the streets,” he said in a video explaining his process of getting to know the city. “But if you go inside, especially into cafés and bars and restaurants, it’s one of the noisiest cities I’ve ever been to, which is great — it means that people are talking and enjoying and arguing. That’s a great sound to record.”
Machover worked on Philadelphia Voices for over a year, collecting sounds both by exploring the city with a field recorder and by soliciting submissions from Philadelphians. Over 7,000 sounds were submitted via the project’s app.
Machover enlisted four different choirs to express the human voices he observed in the city, but to portray one of the city’s most distinctive traditions, only the genuine article would do. Machover visited Pat’s King of Steaks with a microphone to capture the sounds of the counterman taking an order, chopping the Quaker City’s favorite sandwich meat, and letting it sizzle on the griddle until perfectly done.
The sound sample is incorporated into the piece, accompanied by percussionists (on the left side in the video below) mimicking the chopping and sizzling sounds using non-traditional instruments.
Philadelphia’s cheesesteak tradition is actually so rich that many might argue Machover didn’t even sample the right cheesesteak. Pat’s archrival Geno’s, located right across the street, doesn’t chop their steak on the grill — so sampling there might’ve resulted in an entirely different score for the orchestra’s percussionists.
Geno’s actually rated one spot above Pat’s on The Daily Meal’s list of the 10 best cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, and the city’s steak chops are so strong that eight other joints rated higher than both of those legendary shops. Whichever one you prefer, there’s little argument that Philly’s cheesesteak shops make some of the best sandwiches in America.