The Year in Bluebrain Tracking the weirdo performances of D.C.’s most inventive band

Two years ago, Ryan and Hays Holladay were refugees of the crowded New York indie-rock scene. Their band The Epochs had earned some critical adulation, but it came with a price—A&R meddling, crowded five-act bills, something short of complete creative control. The Holladays shelved The Epochs and returned to the D.C. area, where they grew up. In 2009 they created Bluebrain, whose first performances were, well, typical rock shows. But when the duo staged the participatory performance “Cakeblood”—a composition for 50 boomboxes—it was clear Bluebrain was angling for a less typical indie-rock existence. In the year-plus since, the band has released a strong debut album, with muscular, dance-y opening tracks and a slower, almost cavernous back end, and crafted a series of aurally and visually inventive one-off performances. It’s for the latter reason that in 2010 Bluebrain became D.C.’s most interesting band

Jan. 14: A Mindfuck in Four Parts

A few months after “Cakeblood,” Bluebrain released another multitrack composition through the blog The Vinyl District. Like The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka, “The Last Place You Look” has four components that called for four separate listening devices for the best possible sound—unwieldly perhaps, but also a sort of assembly-required version of Bluebrain’s clever electro-pop.

April 3: Cherry Bomb

Bluebrain’s next participatory show took place under the cherry blossoms on a weekend when the National Mall was otherwise stuffed with immobile tourists. For their Cherry Blossom Boombox Walk, Ryan and Hays sequenced short tracks from other area musicians, including Brian Weitz (Animal Collective’s Geologist), Chad Clark of Beauty Pill, Sockets Records head Sean Peoples, and DJ Will Eastman, their second project influenced by the New York avant-garde composer Phil Kline.

May 20: Whale Watching

Without any official sanction by the Smithsonian, the Holladays created a 17-minute piece intended as a musical tour of the Sant Ocean Hall at the Natural History Museum. It was, Ryan says, their first experience creating site-specific music. Because getting the Smithsonian’s endorsement would have taken a while, “we went ahead and just created it.” Raised in Northern Virginia, Ryan and Hays were plenty familiar with the museum. “It felt special creating music for something we grew up with,” Ryan says.

June 19: iPhones at the Fridge

“This was one of the most nerve-wracking shows we’ve ever done,” Ryan says of the performance at the arts space off of Barracks Row. Bluebrain asked participants to download the iPhone app TouchOSC, which allows users to remotely control audio-mixing programs and devices—which on this night turned the audience into collaborators in the duo’s ambient, many-layered orchestrations. Not wanting to leave anyone out, though, Bluebrain invited concertgoers without the app to contribute to a sumi ink mural led by Arijit Das of the design firm Protein Media.

Aug. 1: Cult Movement

Almost as if meaning to turn their boombox walks on their head, Ryan and Hays began discussing the idea of a flash-mob dance, though they admit the dance world is something about which they know “next to nothing.” The dance troupe Urban Artistry was the perfect collaborator for what was ostensibly a silent dance performance. When it came time to execute the performance at Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, Urban Artistry’s dancers heard the music on their headphones, as did audience members who had downloaded the 17-minute MP3 (it was later edited into a four-minute single) to their iPods, but passersby not in the know looked on in disbelief. “We liked the idea of creating a closed environment within a public place,” Ryan says. “But if you weren’t privy to what was going on it might have looked like some kind of cult gathering.”

Oct. 1: Sounds Skyward

Racking up attention for their musical experiments, the brothers were commissioned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art to play at a party in support of “My Business, With the Cloud,” an exhibition by the artist Spencer Finch. Bluebrain in turn tapped a photographer friend to capture a hard drive’s worth of images of the exhibit’s centerpiece, a sculpture of theatrical gels designed to filter rays coming through the skylight into what looks like a bluish-grey orb floating in the Corcoran’s rotunda. To create original songs for the gallery party, Bluebrain then used ProTools to convert their photographs into audio data that became the “sonic DNA” for the performance.

Oct. 12: King Kong Buddha Box

Inspired by a device called a Buddha Machine that allows users to create ambient music by tinkering with the volume and speed of a set of prerecorded loops, Bluebrain—via Brightest Young Things—released a file of nearly 60 tracks of about 24 seconds each, designed to be played back in iTunes with the crossfade function turned all the way up to 12 seconds between songs. “We did it for our own curiosity’s sake to find the magic number, so [songs] are constantly transitioning,” Ryan says. Loaded into its own playlist and set to shuffle, “Kong” enables downloaders to create a seemingly infinite and ever-changing soundscape. And unlike Bluebrain’s other projects, which can take a month from germ to fruition, “Kong” was turned around in about a day.

Oct. 16: Bluebrain Goes 3-D

As novel visually as they are sonically, Bluebrain’s performances often incorporate video projections. But for their show at Artisphere (where Ryan works, though he was hired after the show was booked) on the gallery’s second weekend, the brothers went 3-D. After getting warmed up by Geologist, the audience threw on old-school (i.e. not Avatar) glasses to watch pulsing images of geometric patterns, spooky faces, and the cosmos as Bluebrain played yet another set of songs composed for that evening.

VIDEO: Bluebrain Cherry Blossom Boombox Walk

Our Readers Say

Nice article. One question, though, about The Vinyl District. Why did TCP only give TVD a single, passing mention in its Music In Review issue? TVD has become an international must-read for vinyl-philes, it's racked up an impressive resume and following in its short life, it's a co-founder and sponsor of one of DC's great music-scene events (Record Day), and it's a promoter of interesting and under-the-radar music happenings in and around DC. This local gem deserves more ink! (I would think that one innovative voice in an embattled medium would herald another one in another embattled medium.)
Long live vinyl!
Long live ink!
Kick a$$!! Love this. Thank u!

Also Matthew I read TVD religiously.

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