TED2013: Bluebrain's location-aware albums

Imagine strolling through New York's Central Park with earbuds, listening to music that changes its melody and emotion as you pass each statue, monument, pond, and play area. For instance, if you are walking towards Bethesda Fountain, the orchestral instruments might build to a dramatic crescendo as you approach the water, and walking past a pond might sound the way a Zen monastery feels. This is the kind of experience TED Fellow Ryan Holladay creates with his "location-aware albums," music apps that use GPS to accompany specific landscapes such as The National Mall and Central Park.

Living between Washington DC and California, Ryan, 31, works with his brother Hays, 29, as the duo BLUEBRAIN, where they experiment with interactive music in big ways. After a few busy days at TED we finally connected for a Q&A.

Do you and your brother write the music for your "location-aware albums?" If so, do you walk around the spaces that the music is intended for before writing it? I guess what I really want to know is how the process works between creating the music and figuring out the space that it will fit into.

Yes, all of the music is written and produced by Hays and me. Although we've had a number of great collaborators, from string players and drummers to opera singers and software engineers. The process of writing music for a park like the National Mall is kind of a strange one. The walls of our recording studio are covered with giant maps that we use to sort of plan out the various ways the music can unfold. It helps to visualize it as we're writing. But then a lot of the process is spending time in the park itself, walking back and fourth testing both the accuracy of the GPS in addition to mapping out the music.

What gave you guys the inspiration to write for environments?

I think we've been talking about the idea for years, after seeing and experiencing the work of artists like Phil Kline and Janet Cardiff, both of whom have explored audio and space with their work. But I think for us we were really inspired by how these new technologies are allowing people to dream up new ways to augment your physical surroundings by adding virtual layers on top. Generally it's used to provide restaurant reviews or walking directions, but we really loved the idea of using these tools in a more surreal way, designing a musical score that responds to the architecture of a landscape.

Have you started your album for Pacific Coast Highway yet? What part of PCH and how long of a stretch will the album cover?

So right now, my brother and I are spending time in the Bay Area as visiting artists at Stanford University's Experimental Media Arts Department, which has been a great base to launch from. But we're still at the very early stages of the project, which we're still not entirely sure how to do. Last month, we packed a car full of musical equipment and drove down PCH to Hearst Castle, which was the first pass we'd done. But honestly, we're still figuring out what this will be like! The composer John Cage famously wrote music that takes a hundred some years to perform -- when I think about writing music for the entirety of highway one, I sometimes feel like it might take us that much time to write it! Maybe the whole thing is just an excuse to spend time driving up and down one of the most beautiful stretches of road in North America. I dunno.

This is a little off subject, but can you tell me about your walk-through installation in the abandoned funeral home?

The Living House! That one was a lot of fun. So the background here is that there's a three story building in Washington DC that had operated as a funeral home until the city found out that the owner was embalming people without a license and shut it down. It's become part of DC lore. But it's sat pretty much dormant for the last 10 years and much of the equipment is still lying around. It was a little eerie walking through it while we were building out the installation. But anyway, we used the building to make a 15-minute walk-through piece of music, where each room was equipped with a speaker and played a different track from a larger piece. So think: a choir, with a different voice in every room, the entire house harmonizing together. Or an electronic beat where the entire upstairs and downstairs are engaged in a call and response, back and forth. We had speakers stuffed in fireplaces. A subwoofer in a bathtub.

The entire building was completely dark and filled with fog. Visitors, who had to make a reservation in advance, were equipped with flashlights and could sort of explore this walk-through composition. That was a really fun one.

I really enjoyed your talk on Monday. How was your experience speaking as a TED Fellow, and how are you enjoying your week at TED?

Thanks! It was great getting to talk to the TED crowd, and especially nice to get to do it at the beginning of the week and just spend the rest of the time enjoying everyone else's talks. I'm still processing everything I've heard, but I'm pretty sure Stewart Brand's bringing back dinosaurs at some point.

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  1. I like how during Bluebrain’s “National Mall Piece” the music gets all happy with a big Techno beat when the young woman glides up the stairs and she glimpses the large statue of Lincoln. It’s as if she’s undergone some sort of spiritual enlightenment caused by the combined synesthesic magic of the music and the statue

    This sounds like a great idea, but what if down the road (no pun intended) one of the key play areas, statues or ponds is removed or enlarged or re-configured? It seems like any change in the target environment would ruin the overall intention of an album forever. Or is there a way to plug in another piece of music for a pond if the pond soon dries up or if a playground is bull-dozed to make way for a McDonalds? Holloday must know that environments change – sometimes overnight.

    I’d actually like to commission an album like this for my family living room. There could be a piece of music for when we hang up our car keys in the hall, some music that soothes us as we pass our dining room table and a piece of music each for our three cats. A piece of music composed specifically in honor of our 52-inch big screen TV would be helpful, too  : )

    1. People used to have Music Miesters, like Handel, on staff for things like that.  “The Earl of Muck is coming over for lunch so cook up some welcoming music for him.  Later I’ll be doing the estate’s books so I’ll need some unobtrusive background music.”

    1. Lucasarts games had iMUSE, which changed the musical cues in the X-Wing series of games. Tense battle music would suddenly turn into a triumphant fanfare when you achieved your mission.

    2. Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” also comes to mind. Not an arcade game, but in tune with an airport environment.

  2. There was an interesting little iPhone app that did something like this called RjDj. Unfortunately the developers pulled it from the store and replaced it with a new app that layered gamification on top of the original concept.

  3. This is really cool, however, I think it could go one step further. A collaborative, worldwide, location-based musical platform. The tracks representative of each area would be chosen by voters in the community, and, to prevent abuse, would require a certain number of votes before actually appearing in the field. Exploration of the world would yield not only new sights to be seen and people to meet, but new music. Imagine going to a remote place in the woods and finding that there is a song here that can be found nowhere else in the world.

  4. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about these guys making a soundtrack for Ingress. It’d be a match made in heaven/shaperspace!

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