Cities have always inspired music. The jungle of Midtown Manhattan gave us the Velvet Underground, the industrial blight of Manchester produced Joy Division, and there are some Torontonians who will always find themselves humming the Deadly Snakes' Gore Veil whenever they pass the east side of Trinity Bellwoods Park.
But if people have always been moved to perform music by their urban environment, Marc De Pape has found a way to turn the tables. He's figured out how to make the city play the songs for us.
For his Masters thesis in design at OCADU, De Pape created an instrument he calls the Chime. It looks a little like a Plexiglas version of Wall-E, with an octagonal head no bigger than two human fists.
It's actually an array of 18 different sensors that measure 27 different parameters including light, temperature, wind, movement and noise. When De Pape places the Chime anywhere outdoors, it picks up the bustle of activity around it, and converts it to music through what he describes as "a poetic translation."
De Pape explains the goal of his project like this: "In the same way that say a wind chime makes you more aware of the wind because it translates it into another sense or makes it more phonic, maybe if I use the natural flows of the city and I translate them into sound, people will be more aware of the quality of a particular environment, of a particular location that they otherwise don't pay attention to."
He hopes the project will make urbanites see their daily life a little differently.
"The city is about routines and it's about these functional patterns," he says. "And for me I just wanted to... try to think of ways in which people can be more aware of the routines that they might otherwise think are kind of boring and overly repetitive."
The data collected by each sensor has a corresponding musical sound: if a person or vehicle moves towards the Chime, it translates into a xylophone playing up the scale. If it moves away, a xylophone plays down the scale. Quiet noises produce a piano sound, while louder ones elicit strings. The key of the song is dependent on the temperature.
For his thesis project, De Pape set up the Chime at different locations in the city, and at each one it produced different performances.
For a collection of wires and sensors, the music the Chime is capable of making sounds, well, human. It's ambient and shapeless, but it almost never sounds completely random. Kind of like a Vangelis soundtrack (it was inspired in part by Brian Eno, according to De Pape).
He says that's because he deliberately avoided programming the device with overtly digital noises, opting instead for the more organic sounds of strings, pianos, and chimes.
This helps drive home the point that for all the gadgetry involved, there's a human being behind the Chime. All the data it collects is filtered through "rules" De Pape's programmed into Ableton Live software. If he changes the rules, it changes the song. In this way, each time the Chime is moved to a different location, it plays a different variation of the composition that De Pape has written.
If you want to see the Chime in action, it will be in the auditorium at OCAD during Nuit Blanche. De Pape says he's working on a new song.