clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a Smartphone App Adds a Soundtrack to the National Mall

[Photo by Christopher Chan; Bluebrain logo screenshot by Justin Grimes]

The National Mall may be one of America's national treasures but it's also D.C.'s largest tourist trap. The Smithsonian offerings are unparalleled and the monuments are magnificent works of architecture but sometimes, it's easier for locals to avoid the Nation's front lawn and bypass the hordes of visitors. But a few years ago, a pair of experimental electronic musicians gave locals a reason to visit the mall again.

Ryan and Hays Holladay of Bluebrain created a smartphone app, appropriately titled The National Mall. It's very easy to use: open the app while on the Mall, press play, walk around and listen. The app is location-aware so the music changes as the user moves from place to place. As such, the app effectively provides a soundtrack to the sights on the city's largest green space and provides a new perspective. We spent a few hours one Sunday testing the app and after the jump, we provide a rundown of how what you will hear accompanies what you will see.

What You'll See: The gray block and brutalist Voice of America Buiding, skateboarders and the curvy beige stucco imitation of the National Museum of the American Indian.
What You'll Hear: A weighty monotone drone. This brutal hum captures the feeling of walking into a large austere and cavernous hallway.

What You'll See: The Bartholdi Fountain (which may or may not be illuminated) and the landscaped flora of the Botanic Garden. Roses and marble fishes line the walkways and a spire whips around outside the building.
What You'll Hear: The drone from the VOA building remains in the background, but now there's a faint whipping howl around the roses as if to mimic the wind running through them. In front of the fountain the howls are joined by faint shrieks and the surprisingly aquarian sounding clank of metal. Moving around the garden, shrieks are replaced by hisses and the sounds of weed whackers.

What You'll See: The country's most famous white neoclassical dome, the Capitol Building.
What You'll Hear: One quiet, hollow note that fades in and out in front of a persistent hum. The sense of gravity is overwhelming.

What You'll See: The Capitol's enormous reflecting pool and an equally enormous crowd of people standing around it.
What You'll Hear: There's a persistent squeal, especially in the area close to the equestrian statue that fades in and out. There are also high pitched 8-bit beeps near the monument that sounds like old gaming systems from the early 1990s. As you pass around the pool, the sounds of echo-y footsteps and crickets become more prominent.

What You'll See: I.M. Pei's geometric masterpiece on the National Mall, the National Gallery of Art's East Building. Also, there's a fair amount of construction and several joggers.
What You'll Hear: The rhythm picks up dramatically with the beats of a drum machine. A few chimes and electronic blips fade in but the quick drum beats are the most prominent on Madison between 3rd and 7th Street. Upon approaching 7th Street, this changes to radio static.

What You'll See: The National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden
What You'll Hear: A piano and xylophone ballad. The pace is slow & sleepy by the granite pyramid and chairs but it adds the sound of splashing water in a pool near the fountain (or ice rink depending on the season.) Near the AMOR sculpture, a breathy voice hums over the piano. In front of the Archives, near the eraser sculpture, metal brushes on a cymbal and a gong.

What You'll See: The Butterfly Habitat Garden and the extremely long, horizontal brutalist National Museum of American History
What You'll Hear: Near the Garden there are quick jagged synths with a dreamy wash of sound in the background. It all sounds uneven and unsettling but pretty. The sound is punctuated with drum sticks and vocal "Oh Oh"s. In front of the museum, the sound of the synthesizers get deeper and less uneven.

What You'll See: Washington Monument, the needly obelisk known 'round the world and one of the tallest buildings in otherwise short D.C.
What You'll Hear: Close to the monument there is a grandiose buildup of cello, violin and piano. Upon walking around the monument there are operatic voices harmonizing one punchy staccato note. It's downright regal and fitting.

What You'll See: The World War II Memorial, which may or may not be D.C.'s ugliest monument and is definitely a severe circular assembly of amphitheater-esque stairs leading up to circular gray pillars. Today there is also a helicopter overhead.
What You'll Hear: Hissing, static and muted radio voices. For those familiar with the Fugazi song "The Argument," it starts much like that. Then it's a somber song in a minor key played by violin, keyboard and guitar. It all sounds very sad and oddly enough the song is high-pitched. A trumpet plays in the background as if to give the soldiers who died in this war a proper send off.

What You'll See: Constitution Gardens, where there are joggers on dirt paths circling a pond lined with trees and anchored by one large weeping willow.
What You'll Hear: There's a series of elongated buzzes, quick drum machine beats, and much cheerier chords in major keys chime in on keyboards. Then, all sound cuts out for about two seconds. Upon walking by the restroom near the pool, a telephone ring kicks in. It's gentle but active, as if mirroring the joggers and the people sitting down on their phones.

What You'll See: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Maya Lin's eerie and reflective black gabbro walls.
What You'll Hear: There are very long tinny notes coming from a lap steel or keyboard with delay on them. There are two notes at a time and that's it. It's a very barren feeling.

What You'll See: The city's most famous neoclassical white pillared temple, the Lincoln Memorial.
What You'll Hear: There's operatic chanting, much like there was at the Washington Monument, but it's more full-bodied. The singers aren't just repeating one note over and over. Xylophone trills play over fast beats and it's oddly haunting. There's more of a build up and more trills the higher you get on the stairs, as if providing a sense of success. Oddly enough this music carries over into the Korean War Memorial and that just feels highly disconnected.

What You'll See: The forgotten dome of the District of Columbia War Memorial sitting alone, off to the side in a barren field with some abandoned soccer goals.
What You'll Hear: A low hum in the back is punctuated by static and eerie off kilter notes. It's almost as if you've found the ghost story corner in the middle of the crowd.

What You'll See: The brick towers of the Smithsonian Castle & the carousel in front of it.
What You'll Hear: The synthesizers start and stop suddenly creating some rather dreamy waves. Upon approaching the carousel, there's more vocal action. The singing mirrors the circular motion of the carousel in that it fades in and out: cut off but continuous. There are also faint horse sounds that kick in occasionally.

What You'll See: The familiar post-modern cylinder that is the Hirshhorn Museum
What You'll Hear: The sound of dripping water with an almost metallic echo mirrors the fountain inside the circular atrium.

What You'll See: The marble and concrete encased cubes and steel and glass boxes that make up the Air & Space Museum.
What You'll Hear: It all sounds very fuzzy, but more like running music than the static from the World War II Memorials. Low voices kick in as if talking and metallic sounding steel drums keep the beat. The music almost seems to bubble up like water from a spring. The music gets more drum-heavy the closer one gets to 4th Street and as the National Museum of the American Indian comes into view, one can hear maracas and hand percussion as well.

National Gallery Of Art Sculpture Garden

7th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington D.C.,

United States Capitol

U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC 20515 202-226-8000

Lincoln Memorial

National Mall, Washington, DC 20024