Bluebrain Soundtracks Your Life

Bluebrain Soundtracks Your Life

Photo by Ben Chetta

Arguably, music is the art form most ingrained into our daily lives. This is in part due to its accessibility — but it’s also because music is an art form that lends itself to a multisensory experience. Because we can take it everywhere and participate in other activities while listening, a listening experience is always accompanied by visual cues and physical sensations (how we feel, who’s with us, the weather, what — or who — we’re touching).

Over the past year, musicians Ryan and Hays Holladay have harnessed both intuition and technology to compose music that takes music-as-a-multisensory-experience into consideration. The brothers Holladay write and perform indie pop as Bluebrain — but of late, they’re funneling a great deal of their creative efforts into a series of dynamic (in the changeable sense), location-specific albums.

You can only access these albums via an iPhone or iPad app, so the device’s GPS capabilities can track your movement through the space and play the pieces of the album that correspond to where you’re standing or walking at the time. As you move through the location, the music “zones” overlap, providing a seamless, continuous listening experience. And because everyone moves through the location differently, no two listens are ever exactly the same.

It seems only natural to begin exploring the concept by composing for iconic, high-traffic locations. Accordingly, the Holladays released their soundtrack for Washington, DC’s National Mall last May, and followed up in October with “Listen To The Light,” their soundtrack for New York City’s Central Park.

Prefix spoke with Ryan and Hays about their composition process, how to navigate the tech challenges that accompanied the project, the personal and cultural implications for this kind of listening — plus some exciting news about SXSW!

I’d like to know a little more about how you got involved with this location-specific soundtrack project.  Were you commissioned to do these apps, or was this an idea that you had and sought support and funding to bring to life?
  It started with a conversation that Hays and I had as we were driving back from playing a show in New York. The conversation was about the experience that I think all of us have from time to time, where music kind of fits [seamlessly into] your daily routine or whatever you’re doing at the time, whether it’s when you’re walking and that perfect song comes on in your iPod as you hit your stride, or how you pull into a driveway, and you turn off the car right as the song ends. It makes for a surreal and perfect experience.

We had the conversation about what it would be like to engineer that kind of experience, and it happened to be around the time Apple was allowing third parties to develop their own applications for their iPhone. So it seemed like it was the perfect conversion for these two things; this idea that we wanted to see realized was actually possible for the first time. It wasn’t that GPS wasn’t available [before], it was just that those tools weren’t as widely accessible. It was also the first time that it seemed like so many people had these powerful tools in their pocket, you know. The fact that we can write music and have it be used by so many people is kind of a new thing, so we were really excited about that idea and kept exploring it.

How long did it take to find a developer who would work with you for something like this? 
I think we had a couple of false starts where we would look around and then we’d think, oh, far too expensive, then try to find somebody else. We’d go back to the drawing board or put it on the back burner while we were working on other projects. It was about a year from when we started kicking around the idea to when we finally found somebody who was willing to work with us and within our budget.

How do you select which zones of a location you want to have an accompanying soundtrack?  Do you just pick the places that are most significant to you or is the music absolutely continuous throughout the site?
The idea is that it is a continuous sort of experience. A lot of times people ask “how many songs are on these [soundtracks]?,” which is difficult to answer because it’s not really done that way. It’s more like musical motifs that meld into one another. So you might be hearing one melody at one part of the park, and as you move to another part of the park, that melody might still be the core of what you’re hearing, but it’s morphed into something else. And then as you move away from that point, the melody might move into something different that’s still in the same key. Ideally, the way it works for listeners [is that] it sounds like one seamless experience that they’re controlling.

From a practical standpoint, the way that we did it was just we’d start by walking the park over and over again. We observed how people moved and then found things that seemed like anchors within the landscape that would make sense [as touchpoints] for a musical piece to crescendo or to fall off.  So, for instance, in D.C. the first one we did was the National Mall and an obvious example of an “anchor” was the Washington Monument — a big obelisk that’s essentially the center of the mall. We knew that the music would need to radiate from that point.

So we knew that the experience in that immediate area [around the monument] should be that when you’re at the edge of that block, the music is very subdued. And then as you ascend the hill leading up to the monument, it just continues to get more lush. And finally, when you’re at the very top of the hill at the monument you’re hearing everything and it’s just sort of out of control. We took the visuals as a cue and then went from there.

It’s almost like you’re composing with more than one sense.
Yeah, totally.

Are you trying to tap into something approaching a universal appeal or are you basically transcribing your own feelings about a place and then hoping that’s going to convey what you feel about the place to listeners?
I think that was certainly something we struggled with when we came up with the project. Initially we thought about including vocals, but then we decided that would take it to a very personal place, adding a different kind of context and seeming like we’re trying to superimpose something on somebody else’s experience. But at the same time, you can’t go in the completely universal direction; it’s impossible to really sum up how everybody feels about something.

Did you observe what kind of routes people usually took when they walked through a place and try to compose according to the most common route people took through the National Mall or Central Park?
We did try to anticipate how people moved throughout the park, but at the same time, we realized we had to account for so many different variables. It was kind of like putting together a puzzle where there was no correct answer or no guide to follow. If someone was to walk the obvious route from A to B, the composition would work — but how would A connect to B if somebody went to C first and they went over to the left and then came back?

I think we learned a lot from the National Mall. It was a good first project because we live in D.C. and we knew the obvious first place to do this was on the Mall, but in a weird way it was almost the best place to begin this project because the Mall is so simple. It really is just one long field. It’s a long stretch of park between the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial and there’s not a lot of places you can veer off. So we were able to really understand how people move there because there aren’t a lot of [different] ways people can move through the space.

But then we started composing for Central Park. It’s such a different sort of place, you know — kind of a maze. It’s not made to corral people all down one path [like the National Mall]. So I think we learned a lot about how to write music in a way that lends itself to dovetailing to other melodies and motifs to account for as many different ways that we anticipated people going. I think we learned a lot through the process and as we continue to do more of these we’ll keep taking that research and applying it to what we’re doing next.

On the parts of the Central Park app that I’ve heard, I was expecting something that sounded sort of minimalist. But a lot of this is pretty robust and orchestral. Did that make it more difficult to compose in ways that didn’t sound cacophonous when they overlapped?
Yeah, certainly. I think there are places that would probably fit into the ambient sort of vibe that you’re describing, but at the same time, we wanted to see if we could make [these pieces] bold and have melodies. Of course, it would be easier to blur one ambient piece into another, but I think the fun part of the challenge was to see if we could do something a bit more complex and see if it could actually stay together in a way that’s cohesive.

Do you feel like you had complete creative control over this project, or did your app developers put a lot of restrictions on you — like, how much you could overlap the music, and did there need to be a certain amount of dead space between zones?
That’s a good question. Certainly with the National Mall we had to really experiment. It was about figuring out how far we could push this concept without sacrificing quality or reliability. We certainly had moments where it just wasn’t working and we had to cut back on certain things or rethink how the music was laid out.

As the technology becomes more reliable, I think we’ll be able to add even more to [these kinds of compositions]. [Even though] this project was driven by inspiration, a lot of it was dictated by limitations – but limitations can be liberating, in a way. It gives you something to lean against and provides a direction for your work with — that’s how it was for us. As we were able to figure out what those barriers were, we learned how to write within those limitations.

Were there any limitations you overcame in particularly creative ways?
The main thing was to avoid overloading tracks and try keep things in synch. There were moments where too many tracks merged at once and the GPS got overwhelmed and the iPhone needed a chance to breathe before you could pick back up with it. So a lot of this was about creating zones and thinking about the composition in a way that works within the phone’s capabilities.

Have you gotten any feedback from users or the app developer?
A lot of people suggested interesting features to add; things they’d like to see that would enrich the whole experience. It’s interesting to be on the other side of it where, you now, you just release an album and then it’s [immediately] reviewed. We completely welcome any suggestions to help make [these soundtracks] smoother and a more reliable experience.

R:  A lot of the responses we’ve gotten have been from people who haven’t tried [the apps], which has been really interesting to see. There’s been a number of posts about it on websites that are widely read and get a lot of comments and it’s interesting. I think there’s a number of people who get it, who understand what we’re trying to do and see it as an interesting direction for music. Not that every album or every artist is going to go in this direction, but [that] thinking about how to compose music differently [should be applauded].

Then you’ve got the other side of it, people thinking that these places and landmarks are great as they are. You know, that Central Park is a beautiful park as is, and that adding something to it is unnecessary — or even offensive. I think people understandably feel very protective over a place like Central Park, so somebody coming in and saying, “Here’s the soundtrack to the park” can come off…I don’t know if threatening is the right word, but it’s inspiring some [fervent] reactions.

H: In the end, it’s just our interpretation and anyone with the will and the technology can make their own version. So, yeah, touching on what we were talking about earlier, I don’t think we ever intended to say that this the definitive soundtrack — but it is a soundtrack.

R: I think when you’re dealing with something like a public space — especially one that’s a park — people have the sense that what we’re doing is imposing a human element onto something that’s natural. But in reality what’s kind of crazy about the whole thing is that there’s not a single inch of Central Park that’s not man-made. I mean, every part of it was considered and designed.  Nothing about it is natural. I think if nothing else, [these criticisms have] brought up an interesting debate about the role of technology and art in the places and spaces we all share.

You’ve done soundtracks for the National Mall and Central Park and you’re planning to do one for U.S Route One. What are some other places you’d like to do sort of these situational soundtracks for?
Right now we’re actually doing one that we were commissioned to do by South by Southwest for the festival in Austin. It’s intended for the festival [and it’ll launch in March]. This might be one that doesn’t last much longer after the [event] is done. This is the first site and event-specific one of projects we’ve done. [Ed. — This soundtrack/app is called “The Violet Crown” and unlike the previous soundtracks, is mapped to an urban setting, using streets rather than trees and hill as landmarks]

Bluebrain Maps

Writing for Austin was a different experience because we don’t know it nearly as well. The National Mall and Central Park were picked initially because those are probably the two parks we know best. So doing one for a new location that we aren’t as familiar with was a different sort of challenge. 

It will be interesting to see how it actually works during the festival with so much activity on these streets. It’s one thing to compose for and map to The Ramble in Central Park; you know you won’t be competing with a pop-up stage or something. [At SXSW] it’s a bit more difficult to predict what else will be competing for the listener’s attention.

R: [After this] we’ll work on the one for Highway One. We’re also trying to figure out how to involve other artists in this so that we’re not the only ones composing the music for these different spaces. We’d like to be able to share the tools with certain artists that we’d like to see create music for places all around the world.

What artists have you spoken to about joining you in this project?
It’s probably too early to say, but we’ve talked to some people that I don’t think we would have ever expected to be in conversation with so it’s really exciting.  We’ll see how it actually ends up. Sometime this year we’d like to launch apps and location specific compositions for totally different places — places we’ve never been, but that other artists probably know much better.

The thing about Central Park and the National Mall is that they’re spaces we grew up with and know really well. And while we like the idea of going somewhere new and foreign to us, I think there’s something to be said for finding artists that maybe know those places better and could do a better job with it, so we’re excited to branch this thing out and extend it to other musicians as well.

This is a pretty similar sort of project to music supervision. Do you envision yourselves ever getting into composing for movies, television shows or video games?
We actually did the score to the Tim Tebow documentary for ESPN. Actually, [we did that score] right before we started the SXSW project. I think we’ve learned a lot about creating orchestral and instrumental moods for spaces and hopefully a lot of those skills will translate to doing similar things for film. We’d love to do more of that.

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