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.
The longer Michael Kiley is involved in the Phildelphia music scene, the more he becomes involved in the Philly arts scene. After playing in the more straight-ahead indie rock band Cordaline in the earlier part of the aughts, he founded The Mural and The Mint in 2007 as a way to make poppy music outside of industry convention. All of the band’s albums are available as free downloads (and CDs-for-donation when it performs), and with each release, it stretches both its sonic palette as well as its ambition for how the songs can exist outside of recordings. 2010’s As The Eyes of the Seahorse was performed with a companion dance / performance production (pictured), and The Mural and the Mint’s current project – The Rittenhouse Square Sound Walk – will debut in the spring. Using GPS-powered mobile phone apps, users will be able to hear different sounds as they wander through different corners of the center city park, which will ultimately layer and bloom into a full song. The Kickstarter for the Sound Walk just met its initial goal of $2,200, with five days still remaining in the fundraising campaign – and the extra time is good, since Rittenhouse is just phase one of the project. Kiley and I caught up over the phone yesterday to talk about creating soundtracks to people’s strolls, and how it could potentially connect different regions of the city.
The Key: It’s great how The Mural and The Mint keeps venturing beyond pop songs into performing arts and other experimental ventures. Why do you think this is?
Michael Kiley: Well, the whole project came as a reaction against the normal “get a band together, play the club scene” arc that a lot of people are surprisingly still trying to take. I’m trying to write music, have more stability, and I’m constantly trying to think outside the realm of what a pop band might do. I work pretty extensively as a sound designer for theater and dance in Philly, and that work as a designer has informed this project a lot. So I thought about ways to design people’s walks – what would I play for people as they walk through a certain place. How could I make that exciting and new? Continue reading →
Abstract dance meets chamber folk-pop when The Mural And The Mint performs with the Nichole Canuso Dance Company this weekend in an interpretation of the band’s new album, As The Eyes Of The Seahorse (available for free here). The members of The Mural And The Mint make all of the band’s music available for free digitally; during the record-release shows this Friday and Saturday, they’ll be offering the new album on vinyl. Below, you can check out a video of one of the songs when the band and dance company premiered the performance at the HERE Arts Center in SoHo last December.
The Mural And The Mint and the Nichole Canuso Dance Company perform As The Eyes Of The Seahorse at 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18, & Saturday, Feb. 19, at The Maas Building (1325 N. Randolph Street); tickets to the show are $12-$15.
The members of local folk-pop trio The Mural And The Mint have just released “Ripe”—the lead single off their upcoming album, As The Eyes Of The Seahorse—as a free download on the band’s website. You can give the skittish, piano-driven track a listen below; for more information about the new record, as well as the latest news regarding The Mural And The Mint’s upcoming collaboration with Nichole Canuso Dance Company at Arts Center in SoHo, visit the website.