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App Gives Washington a Walking Soundtrack

D.C. Musicians Create ‘Location-Aware’ Album For National Mall That Lets Music Move With You

A local band has created a soundtrack for the National Mall, and you are the conductor.

Brothers Ryan and Hays Holladay, the duo behind the band Bluebrain, recently released “The National Mall,” which they call the first location-aware album.

Instead of a predetermined set of songs, the album is a smartphone app that uses GPS technology to play different melodies based on the listener’s location.

But you can’t listen just anywhere. The album only plays when the listener is actually on the Mall.

As you move around the park, the music changes. Drums start to pound near the Washington Monument. Approaching the Capitol triggers an electric drone, while climbing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial sets off more whimsical harps and bells. Leave the Mall and the music fades out.

The app-album, which contains more than three hours of electro-pop melodies, took more than a year to produce. Roll Call spoke with Ryan Holladay about the process, the technology and its implications for the future of music.

Of all the art-inspiring places in the world, why did you pick the National Mall?

This is the first in a series of location-aware albums. D.C.’s where we’re from, it’s where we grew up. For sentimental reasons this seemed like the most fitting for us. We saw our first concert on the Mall; I saw my first fireworks there; I had my first date at the FDR Memorial.

But also, for this first one we really needed to have somewhere close to home where we could test the technology pretty quickly. Driving up to New York every day didn’t make sense.

What was the process of putting the album together?

A big part of the process was going down to the Mall and taking in our surroundings and drawing inspiration from that. We would start by walking around the Mall and getting ideas. Then we’d go back to our studio, write and record. We plugged it back into the iPhone and then we’d walk around the Mall again to see how it sounded. It was definitely the most exercise I’ve gotten working on an album.

The whole process took about a year. By the end, [we were on the Mall] certainly every day. After work I would go down there and try out the new version and troubleshoot it. It was constant. Rain or shine, we were definitely walking around.

How did you get the idea for the application?

I can’t remember exactly how we got the idea, but I do remember having a conversation about a year ago with my brother. As with many of the projects we take on, it starts with a question — “How come nobody has done this?” Then the follow up question is, “Why don’t we do that?” The process is figuring out what the impediments would be to us doing something like that. We thought, since nobody else has done this, why don’t we do it?

Where would you stop walking to listen, if you were using the application yourself?

My favorite to work on was the area surrounding the Washington Monument. Its such an incredible view as you’re walking up the hill. We decided to have it start small and get bigger, so if you’re coming from the side nearest the Capitol, as you start up the hill you hear a single cello and an organ.

As you start to ascend that hill, you hear more instruments come in, a violin and a choir and finally, at the top, you hear drums and everything and it’s kind of crazy. If you were to walk backwards, you’d hear the exact opposite happen. The instrumentation would drop out in the same way that it came in.

The whole thing, it was definitely an interesting recording process. Everything we tested we had to test from multiple angles. We had a giant map printout and we tested to see if someone was coming from this way, would it work, if someone was coming from that way, would it work. It was a lot of testing as we were writing.

What’s the best part of this new format? The worst?

What we’ve done is just scratching the surface of what’s possible with new technologies and music. I think it’s going to be incredible to see what artists come up with now that we have some of the most powerful tools that have been available on a commercial level in our lifetime.

I don’t see any huge drawbacks yet, but I’m sure there will be some. Everybody laments the days of vinyl, and certainly there will always be things you lose with the 12-inch record — beautiful cover art, that kind of thing. But with what you gain, it’s a good trade-off.

Where will this take music in the future?

I don’t know if I can speak for where technology is taking music in general. We’re really excited to work on this in other cities. Next up is a park in New York and then one in California that stretches the length of Highway 1. This is giving us new tools and a way to compose music that’s completely new. It’s really exciting.

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