Probably the buzz-iest music project I’ve come across in the last few days is the new, interactive “location aware” album just released as an app by the band Bluebrain. It’s called The National Mall, and the only way you can hear the album is to download its app and listen to the piece as you walk around the National Mall in Washington DC. Based on the GPS information on your phone, the music will loop or change as you stand still or move around the area’s monuments and attractions. The Washington Post explains it thus:
“The app contains nearly three hours of meticulously composed music that transforms as you navigate 264 zones across the Mall. If you stay put, the song remains the same — music will loop in intervals that last two to eight minutes, depending on your position.
The point is to keep moving. Approach the Capitol dome, and you’ll hear an eerie drone. Climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and it’s twinkling harps and chiming bells. As you wander from zone to zone, ambient washes dovetail into trip-hop beats and back again. The music follows you without interruption, the way a soundtrack follows a protagonist through a movie or a video game. When you leave the Mall, the sound evaporates into silence.”
The National Mall is the brainchild of sibling programmers and musicians Hays and Ryan Holladay, and they intend to build a series of site specific albums for other locations, the next one being Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, site of the 1939 World’s Fair.
There’s been some discussion over at Create Digital Music (CDM’s Peter Kirn is interviewed in the Washington Post article about Bluebrain) about a couple of things: one was whether this is the first locative musical work as claimed on Bluebrain’s blog, because Kirn and other commenters on CDM link up to other app based sound works created for specific places, such as the Urban Remix Project in Times Square (which to me, didn’t really yield anything too interesting to listen to).
A similar app mentioned in the CDM comments is the Inception App, based on the movie directed by Christopher Nolan and developed in collaboration with RjDj, the company that makes augmented or reactive music apps, combining live acoustic information from our activities and environments with music making technology. (I myself enjoy some of RjDj’s apps, having used them to transform the chatter and door slams of city bus rides into chorused, beat-driven soundscapes.)
The Inception app promises to deliver, through the headset and mic of your iPhone or iPod and your device’s GPS locator, an aural dreamworld combining the sounds of your location with new music by Inception film composer Hans Zimmer. Like the film, the app contains levels of “dreams”, and you can unlock various levels by doing a variety of things. “For example, new dreams are unlocked by walking, being in a quiet room, traveling faster than 30 mph, when the sun shines or it is full moon.” But one of the dreams will only play if you’re in Africa, which takes us back to the DC-only Bluebrain album.
What is this album if you can only get it in one place? Well, that’s familiar. Haven’t we all searched the stacks of local record shops in cities other than our own, looking for musical gems unique to that particular town? But, you can’t take the Bluebrain album home – and even if you listen to it in DC, it will be different every time you hear it. In that sense, isn’t it more of a site specific live performance, except you are the only performer, deciding by your movements, exactly how this thing will be performed?
Another issue seems to be whether to call Bluebrain’s The National Mall an actual “album”- that being a collection of fixed songs that are usually arranged in a specific order. Not being in DC, there’s no opportunity right now to actually play the project on my device, but if you are there DC to listen to it…are these actual “songs” that change as you move from zone to zone…or snatches of musical elements? If the latter, maybe, as others have pointed out, it’s more appropriate to call this a location aware “composition”? But again, that irritates my usual notion of composition where the artist presents me with layers of notes and sounds in a particular musical order so they have meaning as a whole. Should we just call it “a piece”? (Let’s.)
Because the piece focuses on a particular attraction in a particular city, it could seem like a PR project to attract visitors, just like the Movement app I downloaded for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Does it make you want to hop on the Acela and check it out? Also, because the The National Mall is delivering location based content/media in much the same way as Yelp or Google can tell me where the closest cupcake shop is or if there was a battle fought 100 years ago on the exact spot where I’m standing, the Bluebrain piece could seem more like a coding assignment and less like art. I mean, beyond describing the experience of receiving all these musical sounds in such a high tech way, I can’t see that folks have said much so far about the actual music being any good. I haven’t seen any album reviews in the music press yet.
I am so used to my attachment to conventional albums, the personal timestamps we place on our favorite records, the way our feelings about them change with time while the musical recordings themselves remain fixed. I’m also very attached to live musical performances, listening to those songs I know well infused with new energy each time the performer/composer steps up on stage. I wonder if experiencing a new technical gimmick can compare with that. But looking at all the press surrounding Bluebrain, I guess that is the point of The National Mall – to shake up ideas about what an album or performance or audience participation is in today’s wired world. We’ll see soon how “app albums” will develop in the hands of more and more artists quite soon. Word came in March that Bjork is working on a project called Biophilia, her 7th studio album partially recorded on a iPad which will be distributed as a series of apps. But I think she’s going to want this to be available in more than one place, and I still think I’ll want to buy a ticket to a show.