App-reciating the sounds of a Philly landmark

Michael Kiley created The Empty Air app.
Michael Kiley created The Empty Air app. (COURTNEY MARABELLA / Staff)
Posted: April 20, 2013

What does it take to completely transform a Philadelphia landmark like Rittenhouse Square? The answer could be in your pocket.

The Empty Air, an iPhone application developed by local sound designer and composer Michael Kiley, aims to change your perceptions of a space through an interactive soundtrack.

As you walk through the park, GPS tracks your location and prompts a series of sounds designed to play at specific spots. Walk to one end of the park, and hear an aggressive beat and a panhandler's refrain. Walk to another, and hear a rhythmic jingling and children laughing.

In creating the app, which sells for 99 cents, Kiley thought of the park as topographical, with the lowest point being its entrances and the highest its center. From a sea of ambient noise on the park's outskirts, the track increases in clarity, establishing melodies and rhythms as you head toward the center. Reaching the park's "summit" unlocks a straightforward pop song.

Kiley spent months walking around Rittenhouse, collecting sounds of church bells, chirping birds, rustling leaves and more to mix with musical recordings to make the track.

With The Empty Air, Kiley, who primarily works in theater and dance, sought to create something without the restrictions of a ticketed performance. He was interested in making a more accessible work "within the public sphere."

You don't get more accessible than Rittenhouse Square, which is why Kiley chose the park to be the first subject in what he hopes will be a series of "sound walks" that prompt visitors to reconsider the spaces they're traversing.

Recording under his artist moniker "The Mural and the Mint" - a nod to Philadelphia's abundance of murals and the U.S. Mint - Kiley believes that art can transform a place economically as well as aesthetically.

"Rittenhouse doesn't necessarily need my help," Kiley acknowledges. He chose the square to gain the audience that will allow him to take the app elsewhere. Ideally, the next location will be one "that can really benefit from a few hundred or a few thousand people seeing it who wouldn't normally have."

His sights are set on the Reading Viaduct, or the Palmer Cemetery in Fishtown.

Kiley, 35, moved to Philadelphia in 1998, after graduating from New Mexico State University. In addition to composing and sound design, he works as a voice teacher out of his home and at the Hill School in Pottstown.

The project is Kiley's first foray into application technology. Initially, he was adamant that sounds play exactly when and where they are triggered by checkpoints. The task was frustrating, and ultimately implausible.

"How can I utilize this technology and not be obsessed that it's not doing exactly what it's supposed to do?" he asked himself. "What are the ways I can embrace the chance element of it?"

Ultimately, he accepted the technology's imperfections as one of the app's strengths. Every listen yields a new experience. A spray of seeds blowing in the wind could be accompanied by what sounds like a serene crash of waves (created from traffic noise) or a foreboding bass, depending on how quickly you walk, what direction you face, or even whether you lean right or left.

Despite its trappings, the app is intended to help you disengage from technology.

"Put your device away and enjoy!" it advises as it starts.

For Kiley, this is the element he is most proud of. "It's using technology in an invisible way," he says.

It's easy to lose yourself in the experience, especially on a bright, sunny day when you have no place else to be.


Contact Elizabeth Horkley at ehorkley@philly.com.

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