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.
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.
Bluebrain’s Music, locative and non-locative alike
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.”