Bluebrain’s ‘The National Mall’: The first location-aware album
By Chris Richards,
If a melody on the new Bluebrain album doesn’t move you, keep walking.
On Saturday, the Washington-based band of brothers, Hays and Ryan Holladay, will release what has been dubbed the world’s first location-aware album — an app designed for smartphones that uses Global Positioning System technology to trigger different swaths of electro-pop based on physical location. Titled “The National Mall,” the app-album can be heard only in Washington by iPhone-toting listeners strolling around the monuments and museums.
Sounds geeky, right? It is. But like the most fantastic collisions of music and technology, it feels magical. And in an iPod era, where bite-size MP3s have threatened to vanquish the traditional album format, Bluebrain is helping redefine what an album can actually be. Somewhere, Sgt. Pepper is smiling.
The app contains nearly three hours of meticulously composed music that transforms as you navigate 264 zones across the Mall. If you stay put, the song remains the same — music will loop in intervals that last two to eight minutes, depending on your position.
The point is to keep moving. Approach the Capitol dome, and you’ll hear an eerie drone. Climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and it’s twinkling harps and chiming bells. As you wander from zone to zone, ambient washes dovetail into trip-hop beats and back again. The music follows you without interruption, the way a soundtrack follows a protagonist through a movie or a video game. When you leave the Mall, the sound evaporates into silence.
“It’s like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ of an album,” says Ryan Holladay, citing the series of children’s books narrated in the second person. “The music is fluctuating based on your chosen path.”
Bloggers at Wired, Engadget and Fast Company have showered the project with enthusiastic keystrokes, but the Holladays are hoping that “The National Mall” will transcend tech-circle buzz and push other artists to re-imagine the boundaries that define an album in the digital age.
To help that push, the app won’t cost a penny to download.
“It’s the Mall,” Ryan says. “You don’t pay for anything down there.”
Music has never traveled as rapidly as it does today. Thanks to the Internet’s numerous musical outlets — Pandora, iTunes, YouTube, the scrum of social media — a song can be shared globally and instantly. That’s huge.
For musicians, technology has kept up on the production side of the equation. In the past decade, software such as Apple’s GarageBand and digital-audio workstations such as FruityLoops have revolutionized the speed and ease of do-it-yourself recording and production.
Peter Kirn is the editor of Create Digital Music, a Web site that follows developments in recording technology. “It’s cheaper, it’s easier, it works better,” Kirn says of the programs that fueled the home-recording boom. “So people are doing more of it.”
Bluebrain is a part of the DIY-recording generation, but, Kirn says, the group’s latest endeavor underscores the next step in the fusion of art and technology. “The separation between the musician and the developer has significantly blurred,” he says. “People are getting actively involved in what they create, and I think that’s pretty radical.”
The Holladays — Ryan is 29, Hays is 27 — are more tech-fluent than your average rock musicians, but they still needed a hand after conceiving the idea for “The National Mall” last fall. “With apps, it’s a developer’s market,” Ryan says. “We’d talk to people who were like: ‘That sounds interesting! It’ll be 80 grand.’ ”
They hooked up with Brooklyn-based developer Bradley Feldman, who was so excited about their idea that he agreed to pour countless pro-bono hours into the project. “I see this as a big opportunity for them to do these location-based systems all over the world,” says Feldman, who has agreed to help on Bluebrain albums planned for Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens and Highway 1 in California.
Those app-albums might expand on “The National Mall” by manipulating sound based on altitude or the speed at which the listener is traveling. For the artists, the struggle is making sure the technology consistently serves the music, not the other way around.
“The technology behind an app is not all that important,” says John Pavlus, a reporter for Fast Company’s Co.Design, a Web site that covers the intersection of design and business. “What’s important is what they call user experience, the ‘UX,’ how it makes you feel when you fire it up for the first time.”
The Holladays are wary of their creation being perceived as a gimmick, a gizmo or a toy, and they clearly understand the importance of user experience. After all, concept albums “Dark Side of the Moon” and “OK Computer” delivered a pretty good UX, right?
“We’d love to get past the novelty,” Ryan says. “It would be so awesome to get it reviewed on something like a Pitchfork. Like, as an album.”
The Holladays were born in the District, raised in Arlington County and attended college in New York City. It was there that they formed the Epochs, an electro-rock band that made a few recordings before disintegrating in Brooklyn’s indie-rock petri dish.
After the split, Ryan took a job with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and later landed back in his home town. Hays followed, and the duo began performing as Bluebrain in the fall of 2009.
The brothers were itching to experiment. Instead of traditional gigs, they organized one-off musical events (including the “Cherry Blossom Boombox Walk” in April 2010). Instead of albums, they recorded site-specific soundscapes (including a short score for visitors roaming the National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall).
But “The National Mall” is, by far, their most ambitious project. It’s also their most personal. The brothers saw their first concert on the Mall — a Fugazi gig at the Sylvan Theater band shell in 1995. “This is the park that we grew up with,” Ryan says. “We saw the Fugazi show. I saw my first fireworks show there. I had my first date at the FDR Memorial.”
Hays remembers the childhood wonderment of visiting the Mall at night. “Seeing the monuments lit up, it just felt like some ancient-futuristic landscape,” he says. “The architecture is unbelievable.”
Musically, the pair set out to compose electronic soundscapes that would embellish that sense of aesthetic weirdness, divorcing, they hoped, many of the iconic vistas from their historical and cultural associations in the process.
“There’s this giant obelisk in the middle of a lawn,” Ryan says. “If you don’t think of that as a George Washington Monument, it’s just a really crazy-looking thing.”
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.
It’s truly magical.
Remember to wear good headphones. And comfortable walking shoes.