The relentlessly beeping traffic light on Washington Street, the howl of a siren on Church, the booming voice of a poet at the Buttonwood Tree—Middletown has its own acoustic identity, accessible to anyone who pauses to listen.
MiddletownRemix, an ongoing collaborative project sponsored by the Center for the Arts (CFA), seeks to engage the community in exploring, mapping out, and reimagining the sounds that build and surround it.
MiddletownRemix derives from a larger project called UrbanRemix, which was created by three professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology—Jason Freeman, Michael Nitsche, and Carl Disalvo—who wanted a unique way to facilitate the public’s engagement with the sounds of its community.
“Participants in the UrbanRemix workshops become active creators of shared soundscapes as they search the city for interesting sound cues,” reads their website. “The collected sounds, voices, and noises provide the original tracks for musical remixes that reflect the specific nature and acoustic identity of the community.”
MiddletownRemix uses the web platform generated by the creators of UrbanRemix to allow anyone in the area to explore these concepts for themselves and contribute to the project’s online sonic database. Participants download a phone app (available on the Music and Public Life section of the CFA’s website) that allows them to record sounds they hear in Middletown and then upload them to the collection.
A visit to the MiddletownRemix website will bring you to a map of Middletown that is sprinkled with pinpointed locations. If you click on any of these flagged spots, you will hear a sample of a sound that was recorded there. You can also see who uploaded the sound, any tags the uploader chose to attach to the sound, and other relevant details.
The web platform allows you to trace a path of your choice over the map by clicking on a series of points, leading you to hear all the sounds that have been recorded along your makeshift route. By syncing these sounds, creating loops, and controlling volume and other factors—all of which you can do on this webpage—you can create a mix based on the available sounds.
MiddletownRemix is part of the CFA’s Music and Public Life initiative, a year-long effort to explore and appreciate the role music plays in communities. CFA Program Manager Erinn Roos-Brown remarked that MiddletownRemix is a perfect platform for harnessing this concept in a participatory way.
“Most of Music and Public Life consists of lectures and performances,” Roos-Brown said. “It’s great stuff, but nothing that you or I as audience members can grasp or feel like we’re really a part of. [MiddletownRemix is] a way of making it accessible.”
Roos-Brown added that University Professor of Music Ron Kuivila and Assistant Professor of Music Paula Matthusen were instrumental in bringing UrbanRemix to Middletown.
“When we found out about the Music and Public Life initiative, this seemed like it would be something interesting for them,” Matthusen said. “What we were interested in doing here was something that was a longer duration of Music and Public Life, something that would last for a longer period of time.”
Matthusen found out about UrbanRemix through research she was doing on soundscapes.
“I’d always known Jason [Freeman]’s work because he’s done a lot of work related to how audiences interact with performers, and these different ways of making and sharing sounds,” she said. “A lot of his work has examined this John Cage-type triumvirate of ‘performer-composer-listener’…he’s very interested in making a kind of loop where those roles get mixed around.”
Most of MiddletownRemix is funded by a grant from Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, through a pilot program called Arts Catalyze Placemaking.
“It’s all about connecting the arts to economic development through community-building,” Roos-Brown said. “You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect program [for this project].”
Sure enough, the Middletown- Remix project is seeking to engage the community in an event whose scope extends beyond the UrbanRemix platform. On May 11, the project will culminate in a community-wide festival in the North End Arts District on Main Street. The event will incorporate many local organizations and projects and will feature various sound installations, live mixing, and a flash mob, among other things.
In addition to commissioning local artists for various installations, this festival will draw on work from both Wesleyan and Middletown public school students.
The CFA is currently holding a competition for Wesleyan student DJs; after a public voting period, the four winning DJs will be commissioned by the CFA to create a 15-minute remix to be played during the festival in May, incorporating sounds from the MiddletownRemix project. Students who wish to enter the competition must submit a two to three minute remix that incorporates sounds from the MiddletownRemix project by March 3.
Roos-Brown spoke of the situation as ideal for both applicants and voters.
“Wesleyan students get to pick what they like, those students get to play downtown, and we get to pay them for their work,” she said.
The project has also sought the input of DJs from the Middletown area. Arun Ranganathan, a DJ of hip-hop and urban music who resides in Middletown, explained that he will be mixing live at the festival in May, using sounds uploaded to the MiddletownRemix website.
“I’ll probably include samples from other places musically, but I’m going to base it thematically around the samples that I get from the MiddletownRemix site,” he said. “I’ve already had a couple of ideas…I don’t really want to expand on it too much yet, but there are certain themes there that really fit together.”
Aletta Brady ’15, the CFA’s Music and Public Life Intern, explained that last semester, the CFA focused primarily on engaging the greater Middletown community with the project.
“The fall was a lot of promoting the sounds, making sure that people are remixing, especially in the Middletown community and among the public school students,” Brady said.
Brady added that many local organizations have been very receptive to the idea of MiddletownRemix and are eager to participate.
“When I went around the area to speak with organizations and ask if they wanted to partner with us, they were really excited,” she said.
The CFA hopes to draw more Wesleyan students into participating in the project and the upcoming festival. Matthusen’s Laptop Ensemble class is already set to perform at the event: the class will be premiering a piece by UrbanRemix founder Jason Freeman.
“It’s about 15 minutes long, and it has set rules of how he wants it to start and end, but there’s a lot of freedom within that,” Matthusen explained. “What happens is that when we’re playing with each other, we make patterns on the spot, and the audience can see us do this. One member within the ensemble can then grab a pattern from someone else, because everyone’s networked, and then use that as a way of generating and transforming the sound.”
Matthusen added that Middletown- Remix as a whole provides an interesting platform for connecting people with the sounds they hear.
“It was so fun to hear things that other people recorded that they found interesting and to have that moment of overlap,” she said. “It’s a way of mapping that we are here and putting together a sonic collage of where we are…hopefully we will use this moment to engage with the larger community, because there’s so much to Middletown—there’s a lot of possibility here.”
CFA Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance Intern Monica Tinyo ’13 also thinks that MiddletownRemix will bring people together. Specifically, she hopes the project will help bridge some gaps between Wesleyan students and the Middletown community.
“After last semester, with the diversity forum and everything like that, people were saying that we need a way to connect with people in Middletown,” she said. “The arts are such a good vehicle for that.”