Songlines: Part One

Bruce Chatwin’s book, The Songlines, inspired me to think how I might design an application that would enable composers to create and map music to a specific geography. In the book Chatwin describes Songlines as, “…the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Lore’. Songlines are songs that describe paths, features and specific locations through the outback that are essential to the creation myths, survival and identity of a clan. They are, in many ways, a map that is sung. And they are accurate enough so that a clan member can walk across the Australian landscape for hundreds of miles – and sometimes across the whole continent – without getting lost. Handed down orally from generation to generation over the course of thousands of years they were eventually recorded in physical form as churingas. Pictured below, churingas are essentially mnemonic devices that were used by the Aborigines to recall specific Songlines. They are like tribal vinyl records. Like the grooves in a vinyl record, the shapes, ridges and features of each help the fingers of the clan elder recall the Songline. I cannot imagine the years and years(and years) of knowledge accumulated in each churinga. They are sacred to the Aborigines and it is sad to see one in a museum or a collection as it means that the Songline associated with the churinga and that specific path across the Australian bush – is gone and lost forever.

Giving the power of creating a Songline to a composer would be pretty remarkable. Imagine a composition created by Philip Glass or Arvo Pärt or Brian Eno that is contextual to a location – a walk down Broadway for example. The faster or slower you walked and your direction – perhaps even the time of day and season, would affect the composition making the experience of the music unique to you. This envelope of sound would become, in essence, your personal soundtrack to your experience of the landscape around you. Perhaps even other listeners to the same Songline might affect the music based on their proximity or distance from you. Perhaps you could swap Songlines – experience a Songline created by a friend. Perhaps even the listening to the Songline might be enhanced and affected by ambient sounds – like RJDJ or the new “here” ear buds from Doppler Labs. I’ll keep working on this idea and post my progress as I go.

In 2011 Bluebrain created an app similar to this idea meant specifically to be listened to while walking through Central Park. Songlines would take it a step further by creating tools that any musician could use. Stay tuned.