“You had to be there.” Live performance has always been dictated by being present in a particular place, at a particular time. Now, the same is true of an interactive album produced by brothers Hays and Ryan Holladay, aka Bluebrain.
Both a two-man band and a two-man development team, there’s no clear dividing line between “coder” and “musician” for the artists on this project. But the only way to hear the work is to physically go to Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, and begin walking around. The satellites that populate the GPS received in your smartphone, currently on iOS but with an Android release planned, realize the work. You, and your device, then, participate in a kind of performance. The album is the first of a series; New York’s Flushing Meadows, site of a World’s Fair and a failed Olympics bid, is next.
The Washington Post‘s Chris Richards talk with the two artists; I’m quoted as the story pans back to look at music technology in general:
Bluebrain make magic with the world’s first location aware album [Washington Post]
It’s well worth a full read, as the artists describe some of their intentions, and claim they’re uninterested in this as technological gimmick. Richards also explains the experience of hearing the work, since not all of us can go to DC:
Approach that crazy-looking thing while listening to “The National Mall,” and you’ll hear a keyboard weep. Get closer and digital cellos begin to trace a regal melody. Closer. There’s percussion. Keep going. The volume creeps up. The drums push toward anarchy. Walk right up to the monument, press your hand against the cool, smooth stone and listen, as if the obelisk were a giant radio needle receiving some riotous transmission from deep space.
At one point when Richards interviewed me for the story, he asked me point blank whether technology’s greater impact has been on distribution or production. Caught off guard – it’s a question so fundamental I hadn’t really thought to choose – I found myself choosing production. After all, while distribution has been profound, the advent of recording, not the advent of the computer, is the fundamental breakthrough. But with computer music software, the ability to re-imagine what music actually is has taken the grandest leap since the gramophone.
Ironically, though, Bluebrain are taking the same approach to conventional recording technology as they are the new smartphone – they’re intervening to ensure music is limited and local. A “surprise” record release earlier this year not only went straight-to-vinyl (see previous editorial here), but required that you go to an actual store in the DC area.
In vinyl, the approach is an intentional throwback. In digital, it suggests a new way of making music for a space with a device as the medium rather than live performance.
There have certainly been locative digital works before this one, but I couldn’t think of one that was introduced as an album in this way. Then again, if the idea is worthwhile, it may prove worth repeating.
And do point us to other examples of locative work – including anything that might challenge their claim of being first, at least for our historical benefit.