New app brings site-specific music to North Side walkers | Pittsburgh City Paper

New app brings site-specific music to North Side walkers

"The involvement of the community in these kinds of projects really stimulates the artists."

Roberto Rodriguez, Susie Ibarra
Photo courtesy of Cem Kocyildirim
From the Lower East Side to the Central North Side: Roberto Rodriguez and Susie Ibarra

Many music-lovers have experienced it: You're walking somewhere, or even driving in your car, and the music you're listening to matches up so perfectly with the environment around you, it's almost like it was made for this moment. In the case of users of a new mobile web app tailored to the Central North Side, it is.

The Digital Sanctuaries Pittsburgh app is the second such project of New York City composers Susie Ibarra and Roberto Rodriguez, a husband-and-wife team that performs together as Electric Kulintang. It was put together through a partnership with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, the arts organization on the North Side that hosts writers who have fled their home countries due to persecution or other adverse conditions. Ibarra, a decorated avant-garde percussionist and composer, has performed with the likes of John Zorn and Mirah; Rodriguez, who's played with everyone from Zorn to Celia Cruz, is a multi-instrumentalist, also known primarily for percussion.

Digital Sanctuaries began as a walking-tour project in Lower Manhattan, mostly around Battery Park, close to the World Trade Center site. The original iteration debuted last November.

"It started with a conversation in Lower Manhattan with former Public Programs Director Andrew Horwitz, of the Cultural Council, about the joining of art and technology and what it can do," explains Ibarra. "As musicians, that's our medium, we're talking through music. We chose a modular mobile web app — and later an iOS and Android app — because of its accessibility."

The Manhattan app combines music from Ibarra and Rodriguez with visual art from Makoto Fujimura, and features interaction design by Shankari Murali. It works as an accompaniment for a walking tour of 12 historical sites, with a connection, Ibarra says, to the natural world beneath the cityscape. "In Lower Manhattan, that natural world, the story is all about the water," she explains.

The Pittsburgh environment is different, and therefore the whole of the project here is different; the new app, to be debuted this week with a series of tours led by Ibarra and Rodriguez in person, takes walkers along City of Asylum's Garden to Garden Trail, and features recordings of poetry, selected by City of Asylum co-founder Henry Reese.

"As you go through this, you'll hear poetry being read both in its original language and in translation when it's from another country," Reese explains. "You'll hear Polish, and then the Polish translation — you'll hear it being read with an accent. ... We thought that was important, that you hear the presence of these voices and what they mean, both to what we do [at City of Asylum] and to animating the spaces in the community."

The tour, which takes about an hour and 15 minutes, reaches from City of Asylum's Alphabet Reading Garden, on Monterey Street, to the site of its planned Alphabet City literary center, near the old Garden Theater, on North Avenue. Besides featuring music and spoken word, the app also offers a four-track mixer that the user can control, allowing listeners to remix the material as they see fit.

The project came to Pittsburgh as a result of an informal conversation Ibarra and Rodriguez had with Reese after meeting through poet Yusef Komunyakaa. "We started talking about Digital Sanctuaries," Ibarra says, "and it was very much in alignment with what they do at City of Asylum, because they're creating sanctuaries, and have been creating sanctuaries for a decade, for writers." Reese attended the debut last fall of the Digital Sanctuaries app in Manhattan, and talks continued; Ibarra and Rodriguez then visited Pittsburgh to work on developing the sites for the tour and the music.

The Digital Sanctuaries Pittsburgh smartphone app
The Digital Sanctuaries Pittsburgh app

Digital Sanctuaries may soon expand elsewhere, Ibarra says — there's interest in the Philippines (where Ibarra's parents were born, and where she has worked in the past) and in Mumbai. That puts Pittsburgh at the forefront of a promising project.

"I think for them, this has been an interesting experience, but what's even cooler is, when you think about the places they're looking at — we're a relatively small city, and the neighborhood we're in is a tiny neighborhood in that relatively small city," says Reese. "And we're doing a couple projects where we find we're attracting well-known international artists who tend to do these projects in huge cities; they're finding this very attractive as a community. The involvement of the community in these kinds of projects really stimulates the artists."

While the whole thing isn't an entirely brand-new concept, it's something different for a lot of people — certainly for the North Side, and for Ibarra and Rodriguez, who are more used to composing for a live-music environment.

"People have designed sound walks before; we're not the first to it," admits Ibarra. "But I think it's also our take on it. We're also composers and live performers, and our tradition comes from performing arts. That's something I've been very much interested in: moving from live music to immersive music."