Full disclosure . . . I believe in public transportation. I like watching the landscape slip by and people-watching while listening to music. There’s something comforting in the engine’s hum.

By Aileen Duncan

Living in Ottawa, you can expect a commute when exploring the city. It might take two hours, but OC Transpo can get you nearly anywhere you’re trying to go.

Still, I’m the first to admit that OC Transpo doesn’t have the best reputation for reliability. I’ll cut them some slack due to the network’s growing pains—we are all #readyforrail. And technology is helping. With GPS, open data, and a few well-meaning app developers (bless their hearts), taking the bus is easier and more predictable. But time spent in transit can be put to good use. With the launch of the Sonicity app, this bus journey can be a time to discover local music.

There’s an app for that

Simply put, Sonicity is a soundtrack for your bus ride. It was created by Artengine, which is a tiny non-profit production center out of SAW video, exploring the links between art, technology, and cities.

We spoke with Artengine’s managing director, Remco Volmer. His observations suggested that “People [on the bus] are trying to get away from their experience with headphones. We wondered, is there a way we can connect them with their surroundings?”

For this project, Artengine commissioned seven musicians to each create an original composition to roughly align with a bus route. The selected artists include Adam Saikaley, Mike Dubue, and Boyhood. Artengine gave musicians the choice of bus routes and creative freedom.

The app was designed to be light on data, which means that it is fairly large since the songs are embedded into it. It’s best downloaded over Wi-Fi.

Sonicity - Ottawabeat.com

What is the music like?

Composing a song between 45 and 60 minutes is an entirely different scope. “I hope it interested them and challenged them to create in a different way with this project”, Volmer said.

Several can be described as atmospheric sound art. The most upbeat is DJ Memetic’s mix—which he later pressed into his album RIDEAU2RICHMOND. Memetic’s route along Somerset West took him by several of the city’s record stores, and he sampled records he purchased from those stores when the track “passes by”. Many of these songs reflect a lived experience rather than a specific landmark.

Remco spoke of technological challenges in designing the app, and the process to overcome these caused a delay of several years.

“When we started developing the app we were specifically looking for artists that were not immediately in the mainstream, because we wanted that sense of discovery,” Volmer said. “Some of the artists by now have gained a sense of recognition, but some of them are definitely still discoverable.”

Sonicity currently has soundtracks for seven bus routes, but it’s a project that could grow now that the infrastructure is in place. Volmer expressed an intention to better represent the city’s diversity if they do another round of commissions—for the pilot Artengine mostly asked artists from their immediate networks.

The Sonicity Experience

I live, work, and play in and around Centertown, so don’t often take the bus these days. Yet speaking with Volmer piqued my curiosity to try out the Sonicity app.

Coincidently, I had reason to visit Bayshore. The app made me look forward to running an errand, which is a good start I guess?!

Boarding the 97, I tapped my Presto card and found my favourite seat. I selected the route and Nathanael Larochette’s composition began playing. The app geo-locates you as you enter the bus, and it placed me at the appropriate point in the song.

The mid-afternoon sun was streaming in the bus windows as the bus hummed along the Transitway. I had more than 20 minutes to ride, so I took the time to relax with the assistance of the tranquil, meditative music.

I particularly enjoyed the peaceful stretch of the journey after I passed Westboro, when the bus goes close to the river and the unbroken ice refracted the sun’s rays. It was pleasant and peaceful.

I enjoyed the experience, with the caveat that it is a solitary one. The music works best when you can pay attention to your headphones. I tried to show a friend later, but the songs weren’t very conducive to enjoying together.

As for the interface, the app was pretty neat. You can “unlock” a track if you listen to it for 10 minutes, which makes it seem more like a game. It did crash a couple times, but that isn’t a deal-breaker.

Overall, my impression was that it was an interesting way to encourage being more present in the moment. In listening to the music, I watched my surroundings instead of checking my email. While I wouldn’t reach for the app all the time, I think it’s a cool project that enabled me to reflect about the neighbourhoods—and people—that are connected through a transit route.

* Download the app for free on Google Play and the App Store.