“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.

Follow Bluebrain’s work via their blog and site (and you may have to literally follow it, geographically):

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.

  • This is an absolutely beautiful idea. I hope that distribution can open up to more devices, so that more people may experience this and other ideas that follow. I believe that the idea and execution may be so penetrating, that it will definitely be repeated.

  • J

    There will certainly be people who comment on here that challenge the claim, but they will probably be wrong. Krafftwerk is as close as it comes, what with their time zone specific game app, but that is hardly on this scale. To be able to assign a sound to a physical structure, like the wash monument, is groundbreaking. Bluebrain are true pioneers and, while others may copy them, these two deserve a place in the history books.  Not even kidding. 

  • Marc Pinsky

    This is fantastic! I'm an HUGE advocate for ideas like this as part of my Interactive Audio course. I applaud Bluebrain's thinking outside the box here.

    The only thing that comes to mind as being similar is The Inception app, powered by RJDJ. One of the scenes may only be played if you travel to Africa. However these guys have trumped that one.

  • Aaron

    Although interesting, as with many projects lately, I tire of gimmics..

  • well. as someone who's been working with locative media for quite a while i am super excited about this and pleased it's getting publicity, but would also refute the claim of it being the first!
    I myself have been making GPS responsive music compositions since 2006 (when I was working with Hewlett Packard labs as an artist composing for their mScape system, I even created a generative GPS work that builds itself as you listen to it -&nbsp ;http://duncanspeakman.net/?p=180 ) and I certainly wasn't the first!  artists such as Teri Rueb have been working with this stuff for a long time (since the early 90s I think) – her piece CoreSample is beautiful. there are many more artists. some working with sound, some with text. Check out some of the projects showcased by&nbsp ;http://www.mobilemusicworkshop.org/ . there's a treasure of experiments there.
    This is not a gimmick, it offers the possibility to think about the relationship between music and site. Jean Paul Thibaud talked about the walkman as 'the listening of elsewhere' = i'm interested in how site responsive music can facilitate the 'listening of here'.
    If you're interested in developing projects like this yourself then RjDj has tools for GPS positioning ( http://rjdj.me ) and ex-members of the mScape project are soon to release the Calvium software for iPhone/Android that will let anyone make locative audio works. 

  • Peter Kirn

    Yeah, I think what's unique here is two-fold — the fact that they made this an album (though that's partly just nomenclature), but also taking the adventurous step of saying, you know, you can't hear this *at all* if you're outside DC. I think that alongside a similar vinyl distribution approach is noteworthy. ("First" is never a claim I'd try to make.)

  • why does calling it an album make it unique?
    A collection of compositional elements that work cohesively? Is that an album?
    If that's the case then I (and numnerous others) have created many locative albums over the years that can only be heard in specific locations. that's partly because the devices that run the software are not commercially available anymore and you have to pick them up from specific venues. Yes, this stuff is so (comparitively) old that technologies have already come and gone!
    I would say that it is generally acknowledged in locative composition that the work cannot be heard anywhere else (although of course with anyone's geo-locative work you could hack apart the files and listen to them individually if you so wanted to, in the same way that you could you choose to watch a DVD or listen to an album not in the order intended by the maker).
    As I said this is exciting and wonderful but it is certainly NOT unique or innovative.
    the fact that it is available on iOS is a good thing as it means that hopefully this kind of work will be able to get more exposure and distribution.

  • Peter Kirn

    I'm rather bored with the question of whether something is "new" or "innovative" – that's why I try to cover trends or larger contexts instead of viewing things as isolated breakthroughs. The question remains: if there's a specific historical context, let's hear it. The proportion of generative music releases to conventional ones is still relatively small – RjDj and the like being fairly far apart, though significant. I can't think of an album or generative release that would refuse to play outside of a limited GPS area, but maybe there has been one; there have been locative projects before — 

    For instance:
    Times Square field recordings

    Portions of Plastikman's app worked only at specific live events

    My personal favorite in that it looks like a lot of fun – a beatmap that worked on the Salt Flats with a Fort LTD

    Just to name a few.

  • J

    I would agree with Peter. This is quite different in that it's limiting it's scope to a specific area. I looked into the things you are talking about Duncan and they are quite different and wouldn't, in my opinion, constitute an album. Moreover, the links that Peter posted in the post before mine are pretty wildly different from The National Mall concept. Just cause it shares one or two elements doesn't make it the same thing. I agree, using the word album for what they are doing is a bit misleading, but I think they are truly trying to push people's perceptions of what an album can be. If you can point to any project where I can visit, say, a specific rock or statue and hear a noise that it makes as I approach it (and ONLY there) then I think that would be cool to see. 

    Again, I have yet to try Bluebrain's app so there's every chance it doesn't do what they are claiming it does. But if it does, I consider it pretty novel. 

  • Marc Pinsky

    @ Peter – "I can’t think of an album or generative release that would refuse to play outside of a limited GPS area, but maybe there has been one; there have been locative projects before – "

    The Inception App I was referring to does just that: it uses your phone's GPS in order to unlock a specific music scene.


  • Peter Kirn

    Right, but Inception at least works everywhere. This actually doesn't work outside of DC. I'm not necessarily endorsing that(!), but it's a fascinating idea.

    There was some discussion of locative research I think for a talk at MUTEK; I'd thought about doing a history of this stuff in music. It was before this app came out.

  • somewhere in here there is an interesting debate about distribution. i'll get to that in a moment. . .

    Peter + J –
    the projects I pointed to ONLY play specific sounds at specific locations. There is no other way to hear the elements of the piece unless you come to our studios and start file browsing our hard drives, as you could do with the bluebrain people. I even get sad sometimes as I've now left Bristol and one of my favorite compositions 'my world is empty without you' can only be heard there – http://subtlemob.com/?p=3 )
    From now on I will call it an album 🙂

    the wider historical context is that since GPS was made accessible to the general public, artists (that includes musicians) have been using it. We have an entire studio in Bristol working or various locative media projects (although now the thinking is called 'pervasive media' to encompass more than just geographic sensing, pervasive media is 'sometimes' described as 'content delivered at the right time in the right place', although this definition is flaky too. more info at http://pmstudio.co.uk )
    If this is the moment it moves into the public eye then that's great.

    It seems that the debate here is focused around the naming of this project as an 'album' as that is the only difference between their concept and that of many other projects that have previously existed.
    I would refute 'album' as a useful term in this case anyway. When they describe it they talk about it as a 'piece', but obviously 'album' is more useful marketing wise. It also leads me to believe that you can't choose to listen to specifically different pieces in the app (I'll have to wait until I'm in DC in november to try it).
    If so then in my head that makes it a composition that uses location sensing to structure itself.
    if I bought a symphony on double vinyl (e,g, one movement per side) I would not consider that an 'album'. but anyway, this is drifting from the point that REALLY interests me. which is the idea around technologies impact on production vs. creation.
    The biggest issue we've had in locative music composition for years is the lack of a standardised platform for 'playback' (for want of a better term).
    the biggest frustration for me was always that it was pretty easy to trigger sounds based on position, but to playback multiple streams of sound (to allow mixing and realtime composition) using musically tight timing, was a NIGHTMARE, and was always completely dependent on the hardware.
    The devices were mostly using embedded systems, you had to code based on a specific phone/pda
    Until the iphone it was impossible to know what a users system was capable of, (you could make something using Nokia's Symbian system, but it would only work only certain nokia phones, and then it wouldn't work on palm devices for example) It would be like having to entirely re-record your music for every different make of CD player!
    It meant that you HAD to have a software coding team behind you, knowing how to use Pro Tools just wasn't enough.

    The advent (and popularity) of the iphone has made it possible to create rich audio applications that you know will work on ALL iphones (sometimes generation specific of course), and android is moving that way too. The iPhones ubiquity and the ease of distribution the app store offers has been the real game changer here. Newspapers cover stories about iPhone apps being released.

    At present RjDj is the only freely available app that let's non-coders do this (although it's GPS implementation is currently very tough!). when Calvium get around to taking their authoring system out of beta that is super easy to make GPS based content with ( http://www.calvium.com – although it doesn't rock super tight musical timing yet, i keep nagging them about this!)

    I still get annoyed about the ubiquity of the iphone but it does offer something pretty cool to the musician wanting to create things specifically for mobile distribution. It does mean you're restricting your audience to only iphone (and potentially android ) users, but then again . . a lot of these projects are trying to limit you to a specific physical location – exclusivity rules!

    (for an interesting fictional take on the exclusive potential of locative media it's worth reading 'spook country' by William Gibson, in that a locative sculpture artist is encourage to make a bootleg of his own work and hide it at a secret gps co-ordinate that only he knows about! )

  • Peter Kirn

    Pd runs on both iOS and Android (among others) and I believe also is fairly friendly to non-coders. We may want to look at GPS (and possibly other location / proximity / position indications) available to patches in a standard way.

  • J

    All good points actually. I agree, that Bristol project is similar. I do think, though, they can probably still claim this as it's a collection of songs that form one cohesive piece much like an album. The pieces you are pointing too seem to be singular, though evolving, pieces where as this has separate songs and reoccurring themelike an album. Moreover, I consider an album something that is accessible pretty broadly. And while an iPhone isn't in every single persons hands, this is probably the most accessible such a thing has been before. 

     Anyways, if nothing else, it seems like it's generating a cool discussing and I look forward to seeing how others try and out do this! Exciting times to be alive!

  • Dismaying/nauseating that this discussion focused on a nerdy "I call first!" discussion instead of reveling in the wonder and magic of "The National Mall" as a work.

    What is remarkable about Bluebrain is not that they invented the idea of locative music but how stylishly, charismatically, and seductively they did so.

    – c

  • Peter Kirn

    More to the point, has anyone gotten to listen to this work on the site? I know we have some CDM readers in the DC area; I just can't hop on Acela for this story. 😉 Guess that answer may trickle in… review, anyone?

    Actually, I'll be in Philly tomorrow. Maybe I should just keep going and experience this first-hand. Of course… I don't have an iPhone, so I'll have to somehow make a friend enroute.

  • that is definitely the point peter!
    I can't discuss how stylish or charismatic it is until I actually experience it in situ. Chad could you give us a review of some kind? 

    also Peter, the options for feeding gps into patches/browsers etc are becoming pretty standardised. the issue is more that we need a standard for realtime audio capabilities on the hardware. 
    e.g. multifunkystream V.4.0™ allows for simultaneous playback of 8 stereo 48khz files.  
    so then i could buy a phone (or some other mobile device) and know that it would play any locative/responsive albums released in multifunkystream format. 

    Standards are always a tough thing. CD and MP3 worked out pretty well, I'm sure someone will come up with something (my fingers are crossed!)

  • Hi everyone–

    My name's Ryan, I am one half of Bluebrain. Thanks for the lively debate! Claiming ours is the first, in retrospect, was probably needlessly provocative. We had seen most of the projects/apps/etc that people have been pointing to as evidence to refute our claim of first — Personally we still feel like ours is pretty different than any we've seen, but the point shouldn't be about first at all, really — and I realize that's our fault. 

    Anyways, just wanted to let you know that we'll be posting on our website soon all the links to projects and apps that you all have provided here (as well as others submitted to us via email, etc) that are working in the locative arts. We're interested in celebrating how increasingly powerful technologies like iOS are allowing artists to push boundaries — please let us know as you discover more. 


  • @duncan (RE: RjDj tough GPS implementation) Hey, just thought I'd mention that we just released an update to the RjDj app and RjLib to allow support for all sensor data input. Using [r_#loc] from the RjLib will gather GPS information, you can also receive compass, gyroscope, time/date as well as the others. Check here for more info:&nbsp ;http://blog.rjdj.me/pages/pd-utilities

  • I really like the article and the idea is great. I’m doing research into locative and mobile music at the moment and Bluebrain have been the most impressive artists in the field that I’ve come across so far.

    I can’t check the older comments so I’m not sure if this has been mentioned already but there’s a locative album called Location33 from 2008 that might have beaten them to the punch. I did a post on my blog about them http://www.davidbcollier.com/index.php/mobile-music-location33/ and here’s a paper about the project. http://www.sics.se/fal/events/mobilemusic/papers/Carter_mmt05.pdf

  • I really like the article and the idea is great. I’m doing research into locative and mobile music at the moment and Bluebrain have been the most impressive artists in the field that I’ve come across so far.

    I can’t check the older comments so I’m not sure if this has been mentioned already but there’s a locative album called Location33 from 2008 that might have beaten them to the punch. I did a post on my blog about them http://www.davidbcollier.com/index.php/mobile-music-location33/ and here’s a paper about the project. http://www.sics.se/fal/events/mobilemusic/papers/Carter_mmt05.pdf

    If anyone knows of any similar projects I’d love to hear about them.