Philadelphia songwriter and composer Michael Kiley just completed a new piece that challenges how we listen to music. It is called Empty Air, and you decide how it is played. The project is one of but a handful of works dubbed “site-specific music” or “sound walks,” but it is the first to be composed for Philadelphians. And it changed my perception of Rittenhouse Square.
Empty Air by Kiley’s The Mural and the Mint – completed with collaborators such as Chris Ward of Pattern is Movement, and released to coincide with the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts – is not a track or album but rather an iPhone app. (Download it from the iTunes store here.) After initializing the app, listeners simply put on their earbuds and walk around Rittenhouse Square. The software triggers different music samples in accord with your phone’s GPS. The samples are blended musically and technically to create a streamlined listening experience.
iPhones determine position by triangulating your smartphone’s signal as it transfers information to cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots. The technology tracks position, but it does so erratically and imprecisely. The error adds indeterminacy and randomness to Empty Air that proved a challenge for Kiley and differentiates the project from mainstream media.
A pickier performer might be driven to the brink of insanity by the lack of artistic control, but Kiley came to embrace it. Hearing the artist talk about the piece was like watching a child skip across a minefield. “As the composer, I’m making some strong suggestions, and what your phone does is simply what it does.” Hearing that from the safe haven of the Barnes and Noble across Walnut Street, I tried to imagine someone like Madonna saying the same thing. Then I realized she would probably choose eternal damnation before ceding that kind of control to wireless signaling.
Kiley’s reaction was more modest. He ceded egotistical self-expression and prioritized the space. “By giving myself this mission of mapping sound out for this specific area, things started to emerge. I just followed them.”
In the way that the tracks of a concept album are all aligned toward a unifying principle, the bubbles of sound dispersed throughout the park are musical renderings of the landscape – its winding walkways, its birds and tall, arching trees. He integrated sound recordings of the Park with music. Ambient noises harmonize with instruments in the recording and serve as artificial feedback for the real-world surroundings.