Mobile sound

The National Mall smartphone app

As a participant of Theatrum Mundi, my work shows how practitioners and theorists working in sound and in urbanism might collaborate, and how re-thinking the boundaries between sound and urban space opens up an arena not only for debate but also for intervention – in physical, digital, sonic and social urban spaces at once.

Our physical context determines increasingly the type of information we receive on our laptops (for example Google results) and on our mobile phones (apps for local weather reports, geo-located marketing, etc.) We inhabit physical and digital architectures at once, what some call net locality. I believe that an auditory approach is fruitful for understanding these mobile and locative media experiences.

The National Mall is an iPhone app (released in 2011 by musicians Bluebrain) where users listen to specific music depending on their location. This particular app has been designed for a specific location that also gives the app its name – The National Mall, a park in Washington DC. The musicians have attached each of the songs and sounds they composed to a specific area in the park. When you walk around the park with the app running, and headphones on, or using the speakers on your phone, you will experience the soundscape curated for this particular park, remixing it with the choice of your path.

A Washington post article describes the experience as follows:

‘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 its 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’.

Despite all the rhetoric of how ‘new’ a locative album is – artists, musicians and designers have engaged in the area of locative and mobile sound for more than a decade with their practices rooted in a rich history of sound art, urban art, and interactive media art. Now these developments are moving into mainstream culture – app culture. Based on an extensive review of hundreds of examples, my taxonomy of mobile sound art, under four categories – ‘placed sounds’, ‘sound platforms’, ‘sonifying mobility’ and ‘musical instruments’ – explores the relationship between mobile devices, sound, urban context, and the listener /user.

In a recent article I argue that The National Mall:

‘Can, then, be understood as an example of the locative/ mobile media category ‘placed sounds’, where the distribution of sound in space is pre-curated, and users create their own version or remix of the service by choosing their path through the sounds. The sounds and their locations are chosen by the designers of the application and the participants experience – or co-create – their own version or remix of the piece, depending on their path and the time spent with the service. Movement – often walking – acts as remixing. In locative media, all sorts of media are distributed in space – in ‘placed sound’ the main or entire focus is on sound. Although many set-ups are possible, most work with GPS to locate sounds in space’.

In relation to The National Mall app, the body of the listener could be likened to the needle of a record player, each path in the park the groove of a record, the route of the listener then, becomes a remix – the pace of walking, the choice of path, the overall time spent listening, make up a personalised experience of this geo-located album. This illustrates how our media experiences become increasingly amplified – from a record into a park, from computer screen to city, for example.

In my recent journal article on this topic I argue ‘the visual focus in the media world often implies a distant observer – this does not work for sound and locative media as these rely on immersion, not distance. In locative media, users are immersed in sound and media while at the same time they are busy navigating their urban environment and experiencing their surroundings’.

‘Sound places us at the centre, and this is reinforced when we listen with headphones, surrounded by sound, embedded in media experience. The spatial qualities of sound explain how sonic media immersion operates differently to visual and screen-focused interactions with locative media. Understanding sonic media immersion then allows us to place the locative media experience of users centre stage, focusing on their situated experience. This situated experience is framed by the various contexts locative media are used in, including the social, physical, media and sound context, and our embodied interactions with these. We are remixing The National Mall and other locative sound apps by walking – an embodied, spatialised and temporal way of interacting with media. While the role of walking is often overlooked in screen-focused analysis of locative media, a sound-focused analysis allows us to pay close attention to the way walking operates in engaging with them’.

My focus on the perception of sound highlights ‘how crucial the temporal dimension of locative media experience is, adding to the common focus on ‘location’ in analysing locative media. This focus on the temporal dimension plays out in multiple ways, as it is not only the sound of the app that unfolds over time, but also the walking of the participants. A focus on sound highlights how problematic it is to reduce locative media experiences to a point or line on a map, a link, or a database entry’. An auditory approach to analysing mobile media experience allows us to understand how locative media interactions are always immersive while unfolding over time.

Apps such as The National Mall are also highly problematic in terms of who gets to experience them (e.g. iPhone owners only) and how they organise the social and public space – what I call ‘the sound of exclusion’ –See The Sound of Locative Media for a more detailed analysis.

Theatrum Mundi is an arena to further develop these debates around sound and urbanism, and to consider interventions into urban spaces – interventions that engage with the various layers of physical, digital, sonic and social spaces that make up contemporary urban space.