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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.

Moving inward from the perimeter, samples transition from unstructured, oceanic white noise to the golden egg at the park’s center – a full-length 6-minute song that clarifies and ties together aural elements from the periphery. “There are some great moments where you walk through an archway and something shifts. Or a person walks by you, or something happens in real life that goes with what you’re hearing.” For me, the experience was like floating in a dream – disorienting without being jarring and, ultimately, feeling surreal.

Kiley says producing music with built-in randomness was a humbling experience. He makes himself secondary in importance to the space and indeed the listener. He augments our reality, not because he is better, wiser, or more creative than us, but rather like a good friend, who reflects our own viewpoints and leaves us to make the final decision.

When I suggested his fundamental difference from the norm, he laughed and said, “That’s interesting to hear. Yeah, I do. I think that’s more valuable. That’s just where I am. I don’t know that I’ve always felt that or that I always will. But with this work and what I’m interested in doing right now, I’m trying to take myself out of the equation.”

Do not let the seeming innocuousness of this idea fool you. Kiley’s work is challenging convention. If more people join him, they will call it a revolution.

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