Sonicity app putting local music on the bus map

Nathanael Larochette stands next to the Transitway at rush hour. Larochette is one of several local musicians featured on the Sonicity app, which pairs original compositions with specific OC Transpo routes. Photo: Jacob Hoytema

By Meaghan Richens

A new app is putting more local music on the map – literally.

Sonicity is a free mobile app that provides users with a tailored soundtrack to their daily bus commute, all composed by a local musician.  

The project was funded by OC Transpo and the City of Ottawa through its Public Art Program. It is billed as an “immersive sonic trip through the streets of Ottawa.”

Remco Volmer is the managing director at Artengine, the Ottawa-based media arts group that developed the app.

He said local artists were asked to select an OC Transpo route that connected with them in some way, whether it was an area they lived in, or their route to work.

The artists were then commissioned to arrange an original, instrumental composition inspired by riding that route.

“The point was for them to score that route from end to end –  so basically write a soundtrack to that bus route, based on landmarks they would pass (and) the general environment of where the route would be going,” said Volmer.

“Riders then, on those lines, would have an almost personalized soundtrack,” he added.

Bus route rides run about 45 minutes to an hour end to end, so Volmer said Artengine chose to work with instrumentalists.

Adam Saikaley is a local pianist, composer and improviser who put together a track for the 95 route that runs east-west across the city.

“I grew up taking the 95 my entire life … I know it so intimately,” Saikaley said in an email.

“The route carries a lot of memories for me, so I was happy I could give back to it and be a part of its history in some way,” he added.

Saikaley said he rode the route many times while composing his piece.

“I composed at home in my studio, then I’d bounce it down to my iPhone and jump on the bus (to) see if my composition was working.”

He added: “I wanted to give the rider/listener a sense of calmness that allowed them to take in their present surroundings.”

Volmer said part of what inspired the project was noticing riders with earphones in, trying to remove themselves from the experience of being on the bus.  

“And we basically said, ‘What if we did something that would actually make you want to pay attention or sort of be in that experience or be in that moment?” said Volmer.

Visually, the app is clean and simple. It works in both official languages but it won’t tell you if your bus is on time, or which stop to get off at.  There is a simple, abstracted map of the bus route and an indicator of where the rider is on that route and in the composition.

It is deliberately minimalist.

“It’s purely about that experience of being in the city somewhere and having a soundtrack to your travels,” said Volmer.

The app offers a handful of bus routes to choose from, including the 6, 11 and 14 that run through Centretown. But it is a work in progress. At 445 MB, it is large for a mobile app and takes a while to download.  A handful of negative reviews on the app’s Google Play page indicate it sometimes doesn’t open or load properly once downloaded.

Volmer acknowledged the public’s response so far has been mixed.

“We talked to someone who writes about public transport issues online, and that response was interesting,” said Volmer. 

“He really enjoyed the project, but the music was not for him.” But, overall, he says, the response has been good.

“Everyone who hears about it is interested to know more and is at least trying it out.”

Volmer said the idea for Sonicity was sparked by two past Artengine projects, which explored the way music enhances the travel experience.

The first project was called Nite Ride.

“So you have that experience where you’re driving and a song comes on the radio and it’s weirdly appropriate for the environment in which you drive,” said Volmer. “So we commissioned two sound artists to do a car ride through the Gatineau (hills).”

The second incorporated musical responses to architectural landmarks.

“We created an architectural walk downtown, where there’s a number of  landmarks such as the National Arts Centre and the West Block,” said Volmer.

“So you would have a guide talking about the architecture and then a piece of music that sort of responded to or interpreted that piece of architecture musically.”

Both of these were downloadable and combined location and environment with commissioned music particular to that place, said Volmer.

“So not deliberately, (the Sonicity project) sort of came out of that, thinking about these experiences of travel and how to be in the city,” Volmer said.

The Sonicity project is just one example of recent efforts to promote local music.

In 2017 the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition (OMIC) and the City of Ottawa teamed up for the Love Local Music project. The project created and promoted a series of playlists of local music organized by genre.

Another example is the #ottmusik project, launched in 2016, which plays the music of local musicians for callers on hold in the City of Ottawa’s phone system.

Saikaley said he is hopeful that the app will get people interested in local music.

“Ottawa’s music scene could use any type of interest and attention, from anyone anywhere,” said Saikaley. “I hope the app finds a way to pique the interest of Ottawans who normally wouldn’t find the opportunity to engage in Ottawa’s music scene.” 

Volmer agrees.  He sees this app as a new way of accessing culture.

“That idea of taking an art project outside of the traditional confines of where you would find these things — I think that, as a pursuit, is worthwhile,” Volmer said.

Sonicity will launch officially on Feb. 10 at 4 p.m. at the National Arts Centre. In addition to a preview of the Ottawa Music Strategy, the evening will feature performances from local musicians and a silent disco night ride to simulate the app experience.

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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