You Create Bluebrain’s Landscape Soundtracks

Washington, D.C.-based musicians and brothers Hays and Ryan Holladay released the first “location-aware album,” a free smartphone app, for the National Mall earlier this summer and then, just recently, an app for Central Park in NYC. Leveraging the global positioning system (GPS) technology of smartphones, Bluebrain serves up hours of music based on the physical location of listeners. As listeners move through these landscapes, they enter different zones, each with a different electronic yet soulful song. For the National Mall app alone, there are some 264 zones. Staying put will turn the song into a loop: a two-to-eight minute segment will simply repeat. Ryan Holliday said: “It’s like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ of an album.” 

The Washington Post writes that the National Mall album keeps you moving and exploring. “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.” 

For the brothers, the National Mall album was a labor of love: “The brothers saw their first concert on the Mall — a Fugazi gig at the Sylvan Theater band shell in 1995.” Also, Hays remember visiting monuments at night and having his first date at the FDR memorial. For the teenage Hays, the National Mall lit-up became a “ancient-futuristic landscape.” Ryan added that “if you don’t think of that as a George Washington Monument, it’s just a really crazy-looking thing.”

After hearing exorbitantly costly quotes from potential producers ($80,000 and up), the brothers finally found Brooklyn-based developer Bradley Feldman, who saw a great opportunity and offered to put in a lot of time, pro-bono. To make the app work, Feldman created “Sscape,” which is somewhat similar to software used to create background music for virtual multi-player game worlds. But within this program, Feldman and the Holladay brothers set map coordinates for each song, establishing their temporal boundaries. In this instance, the real world is like the music-infused virtual game world. The music for each zone is set off as listeners approach.  

The Washington Post says the project felt “magical” and represented a revolution in music. “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.”

In addition, the just-released, free 400-song Central Park (Listen to the Light) app got equally rave reviews from The New York Times. As soon as a listener walks through the entrance of Central Park, “it sounds like an orchestra tuning up, a chaotic jumble of wind chimes, electronic moans and discordant strings. Push farther into the park, and a sweet violin melody emerges over languid piano chords.” Then, every 20 to 30 steps new musical themes appear, “as if they were emanating from statues, playgrounds, open spaces and landmarks.”

Different aspects of the landscape are represented in themes, which then layer over one another as you pass out of one zone and into another. “It’s a musical Venn diagram placed over the landscape, and at any time you might have two dozen tracks playing in your ears, all meshing and colliding in surprising ways.”

The brothers decided to go for a distinctly classical feeling for Central Park, sounding warm and mellow for some parts of the park and using symphonic elements to create drama in others. “The melodies are mostly stately, slow marches played on strings or the piano, usually involving a simple two- or four-chord progression, with some electronic chirps, loops and ambient sounds added in the higher registers or rumbling beneath the melody.” 

Also, check out a brief video that explores how Bluebrain created Central Park (Listen to the Light):

The free apps have been downloaded 10,000 times so far. Create your own soundtrack in these iconic landscapes. Go to iTunes to download.

2 thoughts on “You Create Bluebrain’s Landscape Soundtracks

  1. Janet Lee 12/21/2011 / 2:24 pm

    Love this! So inspiring to see how people are playing with landscape and the way we can relate to it in an emotional way…I would love to see a study on how it affects the experience of Central Park

  2. Rochester Landscaper 01/06/2012 / 9:52 am

    This is amazing, I really hope the area the app covers will expand to somewhere closer to my location. It’s such a beautiful concept and implementation.

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