There was a time when the ability to record and playback music didn’t exist – such things were magical fiction no one had seen. So, the idea of playing one channel of recorded sound, then two channels, had to be invented. Artists hadn’t created something called an “album” until there were devices that played back that monophonic and stereophonic sound; even the idea that such a strange art counted as “music” had to be constructed. It’s obvious now, but it’s easy to forget that these musical forms were produced to cater to the capabilities of what was once a new device.

Now that your music device can do more than play a couple of channels of sound, will musicians find use in those features? Or are they just distractions? Can the fact that your music player knows where you are be as important as the fact that it can play audio?

We saw the work of Bluebrain, the Washington, DC-based duo of Hays Holladay & Ryan Holladay, before. They’ve been slowly building up a repertoire of locative art, starting with the Mall in DC. Their first full-length album came to Central Park, as documented beautifully in a short film that details the creation of the music and software, and various critics responding to its significance.

The most compelling image recurring in the film may be their scrawled-upon map of the city itself. It’s clear in those images that composition and place converge: the map itself becomes a score for the music, a topography of interaction through the landmark park.

One of those people interviewed in the film, briefly, is me. You’ll see some of the answers from the interviewees don’t entirely agree with others. Rather than focus on the novelty of the thing, I chose to look at their work as rooted in history. It’s not entirely clear whether the musical card game attributed to Mozart was his work, but various aleatoric and algorithmic approaches to composition pre-date even recording, let alone GPS. That to me gives a context and a continuity to these kinds of activities.

But beyond the meaning of “disruptive” technology as one person puts it, what the film conveys most is the artists’ love of where they are. They’re not making an album that’s an app, they hasten to add. They really just want you to hear this music in this particular place, moving in these particular ways. The fact that they record an organ that is part of where they grew up is added evidence.

If you’re going to South by Southwest, you can experience this application when you’re in Austin, as covered in an article on The Creators’ Project. You should do it if you’re there, especially as you otherwise can’t hear this music without going to the National Mall or New York’s Central Park.

Choose-Your-Own-Adventure App Album Debuts At SXSW

In a way, though, that seems to me the least interesting of these applications. Perhaps I’m biased in that I have a connection in my life to Manhattan and not so much to downtown Austin. But to me, the arguably-perverse requirement that you go to a place in order to hear a work seems part of the joy of these creations. Having it switch on in a place already full of iPhone-toting Web geeks deeply in love with GPS seems to take out the fun and the challenge. It comes to its audience; the other works demand an audience come to it.

What the duo succeeded in doing in New York and DC – even though these places are landmarks – is making the ever-present software somehow more ephemeral. It works in one place, and then it’s gone. Like the generative limited edition we saw last month, it undercuts the very ubiquity that seems to be digital music’s fundamental character.

And yes, greetings, New York and New Yorkers; I love where I am, but I do miss you. Unlike in software, in the real world, we can’t be more than one place at once. We have to be alive, and we have to do what we’re doing now. We are where we are, and we’re not somewhere else. If you aren’t there when someone plays, you miss it. You have to choose.

And perhaps that’s what is sometimes missing in our music and technology.

An Album That Can Be Heard Only in One Location, in Interactive Ode to Washington, D.C.

Bluebrain’s Music, locative and non-locative alike

A free app download for iOS, for use in Austin, TX

Listen in Central Park

I love reviews. One person writes on the iTunes App Store about the Central Park app, “Weirdest music we have ever heard. Creepy, eerie noise.” You can’t please everyone.

I’m also quoted in a story in The New York Times from December:
Central Park, the Soundtrack

I believe I did the interview from Amsterdam (ironically, the old one), and apparently said:

“It’s not just that they are using this as a novel delivery mechanism. It’s part of their musical process. They are forcing you to go to a place because that place for them is musically meaningful.”

  • Sot

    The novel delivery mechanism, the totally new technology etcetera etcetra have been around for at least 8 years.  

    • Peter Kirn

      That’s simply not true – not in any practical sense. Ever try developing for the platforms that were around when Apple’s App Store went online in July 2008 — so, just over three years prior to their project? (Augh… Java ME, anyone?) So, I would count as the delivery mechanism the whole thing – having devices with better audio capabilities, *and* GPS, *and* an app store through which to deliver the software.

      But, otherwise, you’re preaching to the converted, at least in that my argument is that novelty isn’t the most important factor here.

    • Sot

      10 Years, Peter. For the sake of you argument, if you count the *app store* as novelty I don’t see where the artistic novelty lies. Then app store would bless any kind of software with novelty. Lets agree: No.

      Dont believe me, read e.g.

    • Peter Kirn

      The key words being “the delivery mechanism.” The Soundwalk project is not the same delivery mechanism, and compositionally the earlier stuff is different. And the context was “in the history of recording.” In the history of recording, this is a truly novel delivery mechanism by any definition. 

      I said, very specifically, this was not the first locative artwork, but that the delivery mechanism had changed.

      In fact, delivery is everything. If you read through that thesis, very specifically, what’s lacking in the hardware-specific solutions is any practical ability to get them to a wide audience. (No, a Nokia N900 does not count as “a wide audience.”)

      Now, you could argue that the works going back to the 60s are better. They don’t need an iPhone, they don’t need a download. The user participates in moving around, and they’re not tied to the technology of GPS. That takes away a lot more freedom than it adds. What you do add in this case is widely-available, consistent hardware and wide distribution via a market by which, theoretically, people might acquire the work. That doesn’t address the deeper question of whether you want to do this or not. Here, I’m looking at these particular artists motivations as I understood them through the work (perhaps even more than through their own explanation.)

      Anyway, in the interview, I’m talking about Mozart. So, I’m not sure who you’re arguing with, exactly, but it’s not me. 😉

    • Sot

      Just to add: I don’t want to take anything away from them as artists. 

      I think however we should take media art seriously and that includes learning about the history and giving recognition to the artists that have paved our roads. One just cannot seriously claim to deliver locative art as a *novelty in a technological sense* in 2011/12. Even if I discovered that painting with my finger was new and exciting to me I wouldn’t assume I was the first one. 

    • Peter Kirn

      Yeah, I’ve read that paper. You’re not reading what I’m saying, so you’re arguing with someone who isn’t me.First, I specifically said novelty wasn’t what I thought was significant, but you’re arguing with me exclusively about novelty.Second, I said what was specifically novel was *delivery mechanism.* You’re citing Soundwalk as an example – and it doesn’t use GPS.Third, the context in which I talk about novelty is relative to recording. GPS is more recent than recording.Now, I’m not giving the App Store any kind of special credit here, which is why I didn’t focus on that. But I can certainly tell you, and I would think anyone who’s ever done this sort of work would agree, for the people who do want to use GPS as part of the music, having a consistent platform and the ability to get software easily to people on the mobile is something that has been transformed by that development.

  • Deb

    I was at the Banff New Media Institute sometime back and came across some people doing the same thing using HP something or others.  Or Palm Pilots, or something.  I forgot about it until now, and there’s a big “OF COURSE” factor to this project, at least to me…but what is so lovely about this is the attention, care, the thought and complexity of the composition that Bluebrain is doing.  Well done! 
    I wonder if there are other ways to do this other than an app….no idea.

    • Peter Kirn

      Yeah, oddly enough, I got contacted by two separate journalists (and I think at one point the artists themselves) asking if this really was “first.” What do you say? “Yeah, probably not. I don’t know off the top of my head?”

      Certainly not the first locative piece, by any stretch. I think the best that I came up with was, it was perhaps the first widely-available piece that *required* location that billed itself as an album. Being able to put it on the App Store sure makes life easier, though(!) 

      If by “app,” you mean software, I think there isn’t any way to avoid the use of software! Beyond that, it’s simply a live performance. On the other hand, could you use something other than a phone? Sure, probably. GPS chips are getting cheaper. You could do something like the Buddha Box, and use GPS, or a compass, or a temperature sensor. Lots of possibilities.

  • Gabriel

    Very cool. How is this ideologically different from some of the dynamic soundtracks employed in videogames right now?

  • Josh Peterson

    Nicholas Varchausky has made a couple of sound art pieces located in cemeteries:

  • rj

    so, if i wanted to create site specific recordings of solo trumpet pieces in different locations across the country… how did they do it? Does the app only deliver the music when you’re in that location? Is that essentially how it works?

  • Armando C

    was just going to say it would’ve been cool to see one for sxsw, but my answer quickly came. 😛

  • Robert Thomas

    cool stuff!