LOOP Beijing is a sound system made for the Beijing public bus network that is currently being showcased in the 2014 Beijing Design Week. The idea is, you can get on a public bus and listen to a recording that has been made for the specific bus line you are travelling on. What's more, it is designed to allow people to submit their own recordings making it a platform for the sharing of sounds, whether they be music, speech or otherwise.
Beijing buses are numerous and the timetables next to impossible to make head or tail of if you don't read Chinese. They are, however, extremely convenient, if you know how to use them, and remarkably inexpensive too. The bus I took was the 731, I was on it for about half an hour and it cost £0.04. There are still one of two leftovers from communism in today's market economy.
I plugged in my headphones and using the application Wechat (it's also possible to listen from the website) tapped in 731. At first the streaming was poor and the sound came in fits and bursts but, with 3G, it began to flow much better. The sound turned out to be a five minute piece of electronic music, not the most obvious sort of dance music but nothing that particularly stretched the ear either. I read that it was composed by a musician in London, whether or not he made it with this specific route in mind or not was not clear. When I came to think about the mechanics of it, it is quite difficult to make something very specifically for a route as the starting and ending point of the listener's journey is impossible for the composer to know, as is the time of day the listener will take the bus and the direction they will take it in. With all these variables, the possibility of predetermined relations between the outside the bus and the sound file are next to impossible so this is never going to be like an audio tour on a tourist bus that tells you, "on your right is..."
The interior of the bus was, in any case, more present than the exterior. The bus rattled along and managed to make a racket of its own with windows vibrating in their frames, doors shaking together, the engine complaining like an asthmatic doing a marathon, and the occasional mobile phone soloing over the bus's tense rhythm section. When the bus pulled over to stop something special happened. On one of the seats on the side of the bus facing the exit door, a man cleared his throat and, with the door wide open and nobody standing between him and the exit, managed to spit clean out of the bus! I am not particularly impressed by spitting but I had to recognise this as quite a feat in precision, distance spitting. The Beijing Loop soundtrack that was playing as this happened definitely elevated this moment into something memorable, or else the spitting gave the music a special appeal.
At the risk of mixing my tours up, listening to this audio recording reminded me of A Folded Path, a concert / performance I saw a few weeks ago in Bristol. This basically worked by having three groups of audience members led through the city streets carrying speaker boxes which emitted different sounds. These were tailored to the routes that we followed and the guides, in the yellow high visibility jackets, kept the group on time so that the sound and space related as intended. This side of it worked well with some dynamic changes in the rhythm of the tour deliberately choreographed onto the streets of Bristol. What was less exciting for me was the choice of sounds which were used to achieve this: it was the sort of sound I might expect on a compilation CD called Ambient Chill Out Groove, or something of that ilk. As well as it not being my musical taste, it felt, more importantly, arbitrary and without any deep relation to the social spaces we were passing through. The same thing could have been done with a Bhangra, heavy metal or yodelling soundtrack, and it would not have been much more or less related to the space. It may be that I was expecting too much and already using the space as a trigger for the composer's imagination is sufficient. I do however hold this desire for something more so that the work succeeds or fails not only based upon you liking the music and admiring its novel form of presentation.
To jump back to Loop Beijing then, I felt that the particular track I listened to had a similar arbitrary quality to it. I have, however, listened to a number of other tracks since then and they are quite varied with musicians considering this problem and people using the upload facility to play with the possibilities of this system in quite different ways. LOOP Beijing has just been launched and right now only a small proportion of the city's vast bus network has been linked to recordings. I rather think this is likely to grow and people will find ways to use this platform that are difficult to predetermine. Who knows, maybe people will use it to tell stories, give directions, jam with the buses own soundtrack or even advertise their services or find dates with fellow passengers. I already had one idea of a soundtrack grounded in the social space of the bus: a periodic clearing of the throat and spitting. It's a pity I didn't get the guy on the bus with the projectile spit to make a recording for me, he was something special. But on second thoughts, maybe it's for the best I didn't, this is probably not not what you want to hear creaking through rush hour traffic in Guomao. I will in any case be following how this develops as it's a very nice concept, the infrastructure really works and the content is accumulating.