How to turn a city into a musical device (some thoughts after a conversation I had with @jaimewoo)

This is a rough collection of ideas I put together after a chat with Jaime Woo (@jaimewoo) on Twitter. It’s also based on the work David Byrne did with playing a building, though of course it is not as sophisticated as that.

Essentially I was considering the challenge ofhow to turn a city into a musical instrument. To do this, you’d need inputs (your keys, so to speak) and outputs (the sound). The trick is how to get inputs from the city such that your output is something most people would think is worthwhile to listen to, somethingmusical and not just noise or random sounds.

To do this, I am going to model my first idea on the Mozart Magic Cube toy and we can go from there. (This is the Magic Cube here: cube can play 8 different Mozart pieces, and there is a switch to make it go from one piece to another. (It’s a kid toy: I think if you bang it against something, it changes the composition that it’s playing). There are also five buttons (inputs) associated with a musical instrument: pressing one turns the instrument on or off. It’s great for kids, of course, but it could also be the start of a way to turn the city into a music device.

Let’s imagine putting five kiosks in the city. One kiosk represents the drum, another the flute, etc. All kiosks are ON by default. Each kiosk has a computer with speakers, a browser, and a mouse. Each kiosk computer is hooked up to central web server that is running on Google’s app engine or a low cost shared site. The server sends down the song for the kiosk to play vis the browser, and the kiosk plays it. If someone on the drum kiosk clicks the mouse to turn the drum OFF, then this is sent to the central kiosk, and the other servers tells all the kiosks to turn the drum sound off.

Essentially what we have done here is deconstruct the Mozart Magic cube and spread it’s buttons all over the city, and people in different parts of the city are playing the cube together. You have five groups of people around these kiosks, playing simple music with the click of a mouse.

So far, we have something simple, but not too interesting. Five buttons, five instruments. We can make it more interesting by changing the interface and having more things to switch on and off.. For example, you could have it so that you have many many instruments to turn on and off. Instead of a mouse click, you could have people vote up or down the intensity of each sound. For example, if more people send a twitter message to turn the kettle drums off and the tubas on (using a special hash tag), then the drums will go off and the tubas will go on. In essence, the population is conducting the city. You could even have a real orchestra or band playing while watching a dashboard to change the way they play.

It doesn’t have to be classical music, either. It could be jazz or rock or anything with enough instruments in it to make it interesting to interact with. However you do it, you have a social interaction set to music.

It also doesn’t have to be a twitter feed or a mouse click. You could use QR codes so that people could use their mobile phones to take photos of QR codes, that would take them to the central server and allow their vote to be registered that way. Anything suitable for a crowd of people and kiosks would work.

The more time you have, the more interactive and dynamic you can make it. For example, you could break the music down even further so that various inputs could be chords or notes from different instruments, and the input that different parts of the city provide can come up with an original composition. Mind you, it could be a terrible composition as well! For that, you would need someone with enough musical knowledge to put together a range of sounds that would sound well together regardless of how they were played. But if you see tools like Audiotool and other such sites, you see how people can turn things on and off and have the music change in a way that it is still interesting. And you can even add music visualization to that!

There are lots of ways to gather input from people across the city and map it to sounds that will output music. You need to make sure the input is “good”, and by good it has to result in interesting output. That means it has to vary sufficiently, for one thing. But you also need to guard against malicious input. Boring input or malicious input will make bad music. You need some form of moderation that makes it into something interesting.

Anyway, this is some rough ideas on how to turn the city into a musical device using social media as input.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s