Mix up your social distancing this summer with a made-in-Fort-Wayne solo music adventure

Under the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world are encouraged to stay home and avoid in-person interaction—even when they’re outdoors.

While the warming temperatures might tempt you to go for walks or bike rides near home, there are only so many times you can revisit the same places before you get bored with these activities, too.

But what if there was a way to experience the same park or block of your neighborhood and feel the newness of it every time? What if there were surprises to encounter and different things to discover at every turn?

That’s the beauty of an app called SoundWalk, a made-in-Fort-Wayne experience that uses the mapping technology on your smartphone to turn your location into an ever-changing sonic environment.

All you have to do is download the app for free, put on your headphones, and go to the location of the SoundWalk experience. Then, your adventure begins, and as you walk, the app will play music specifically composed for your location—a song that changes as you move toward a tree or a fountain or even as you pick up your pace.

SoundWalk is a free smartphone app that pairs music and stories to places using GPS technology. 

The app was dreamed up and developed by Kurt Roembke of Fort Wayne, a composer-turned-techie, and while he has only published one SoundWalk experience so far, he and a host of other creatives in the city have big plans for the app’s potential—which could be scaled internationally.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Roembke and his collaborators to learn more about what they’re working on and how you can mix up your COVID-19 social distancing practices this summer with a music adventure of your own.

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While double-majoring in recording technology and classical guitar at Purdue Fort Wayne, Kurt Roembke developed a deep appreciation for art music. Roembke

Unlike pop or folk music, art music is meticulously composed and performed without improvisation, inviting careful listeners to decipher the music's meaning.

But as Roembke became more interested in art music and started composing it himself, he encountered a challenge.

“Art music can be really academic and heady,” he says. “It’s hard to get anyone to listen to it.”

So that was his goal: He wanted to make art music more approachable to people, and one day, he got an idea.

While working as a security guard at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art with his friend and sculptor Andrew Dubach, the two noticed a trend.

Gallery visitors viewed the artwork at their own pace, spending more time with certain pieces and breezing past others.

“It made us wonder why,” Roembke says.  

Patrons browse the 2019 Scholastic Art and Writing displays at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

In his curiosity, he started to question the linear nature of music. Songs are different from galleries in that they’re measured in time. You can’t really jump around. You start the song at the beginning and listen through the entire piece until the end.

But what if music didn’t have to be experienced this way? What if you, as the listener, could pick and choose how long you spent with different sections of a song, just like you browse an art gallery?

What if you could remove the linear passage of time?

With these questions in mind, Roembke and Dubach decided to experiment. They put together a gallery at Wunderkammer Company contemporary art center around the year 2013 where they paired Roembke’s compositions with Dubach’s sculptures, attaching headphones to each installation. And what Roembke found is that by having visuals to accompany his work, people began to appreciate it.

“People were literally standing in front of a sculpture for like six minutes before moving on,” Roembke says. “They would put the headphones on, and the music would allow them to question the art because they were hearing someone’s interpretation of it. People were fascinated by that.”

The experience inspired Roembke to start composing music for some of his favorite places around Fort Wayne. Walking through parks, like Lindenwood Cemetery, he would take pictures of a tree or a bridge and compose a piece of music specifically about that image.

This prompted him to ask the question that has consumed his creative energy in recent years: What if there was a way to pair a sound to a physical place or object, using the mapping technology on your smartphone?

In recent years, Roembke has taught himself to code and developed a free app that does just that. It’s called SoundWalk, and he’s been working on it since 2016, thanks to funding and grants from Fort Wayne SOUP, the Fortitude Fund, and Indiana OCRA, along with local sponsorships from Sweetwater and Steve Franks.

Over the years, the concept for SoundWalk has evolved, too, Roembke says.

What started as a project specifically for Lindenwood Cemetery and other parks in Fort Wayne has grown into a Spotify-type app where various sound experiences are stored like albums. Simply click on the album you want to listen to, go to the location where it’s mapped, and begin your journey.

Theoretically, SoundWalk experiences can be created for anywhere in the world.

To build the app, Roembke worked with the 212 Creative Network program (formerly at Artlink Fort Wayne) where he’s received input and mentorship from creators across the country. His current partner on SoundWalk is Laura Hilker, a Fort Wayne ex-patriate in Los Angeles.

Hilker handles the business side of SoundWalk, and Roembke is carrying the weight of building out its technology and composing music for it. But since it’s still a side project for him on top of other videogame and sound development work, it’s a heavy lift, he says.

So far, he has created and published one SoundWalk experience on the app, and it’s not music. Instead, it’s a grant-funded passion project for the Little Turtle Memorial in Fort Wayne, which shares the stories and reflections of modern Native Americans at the historic site.

Roembke still hopes to use SoundWalk to share his music someday, and he’s currently working on about five projects for the app in his spare time, enlisting the help of other local artists, too.

For the past several months, the internationally distributed electronic, experimental band Metavari, based in Fort Wayne, has been working with Roembke to make a special SoundWalk experience for the 2020 Middle Waves Music Festival at Electric Works.

The St. Marys Stage at Middle Waves Music Festival comes alive at night.

Roembke and Metavari’s founding musician, Nate Utesch, both performed at the 2018 Middle Waves festival individually. Their 2020 project will be a collaboration, mapping Metavari’s sound to McCulloch Park in Fort Wayne using Roembke’s SoundWalk technology.

Roembke says they chose McCulloch Park because it will be free and open to the public during the festival, making it highly accessible to anyone who wants to give SoundWalk a try.

“Hopefully, it will literally change how people experience Middle Waves,” Roembke says. “You can walk through the park and see all of the cool visuals the vibe team has created, then put your headphones on, and have that space totally transformed into this interactive sonic environment.”

SoundWalk gives people a new context to understand music and where they live.

While Middle Waves is still scheduled for June 12-13, 2020, there’s no telling what might happen to the weekend music celebration as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.

So far, large events and public gatherings across the city are being canceled into June.

Roembke and Utesch are still hoping to debut the McCulloch Park experience at Middle Waves, but they’re planning to make it available to listeners later this year no matter what happens.

After all, SoundWalk is something people can do safely while social distancing, Utesch notes.

“What better time to have this tool to encourage people to have solo adventures listening to music?” he asks.

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For the past 14 years, Nate Utesch has been the driving force behind an electronic, experimental music project based in Fort Wayne called Metavari.

And over the years, Metavari has had many reincarnations.

“It’s changed so drastically, it’s been about six different bands,” Utesch says.

But while band members and styles have come and gone, one thing that has been constant is the influence of Utesch and his friend and co-creator, Ty Brinneman.

Nate Utesch, left, and Ty Brinneman, right, are the original creators of Metavari.

Growing up in Fort Wayne, the two listened to loud metal and punk music together in their teens. Then about the same time, they discovered the ambient, electronic soundscapes of composers, like Jean-Michel Jarre and Philip Glass.

“They were using repetition and voice and not worrying about a linear timeline in music,” Utesch says. “It was more like a collage of passages.”

Metavari grew out of the friends’ shared interests—meshing the metal influences of their youth with electronic, new-age music.

As Brinneman, Utesch, and others composed songs for Metavari, they found it was more like writing stories together. Even if no one else knew the stories, it guided how they thought about the compositions and transitioned from piece to piece.

“At lot of it is so ethereal in our minds,” Utesch says. “It is about mood and emotion.”

As Metavari evolved, it leaned more and more into these ethereal influences and landed a record label with international distribution.

Today, the band is made up of Utesch and percussionist Colin Boyd.

“And it’s more electronic and experimental than it’s ever been,” Utesch says.

Metavari's current members are Nate Utesch and Colin Boyd.

When Boyd joined the band about a year ago, he brought with him the influences of jazz, prompting the conversation about how to keep pushing the limits on Metavari’s nonlinear style, yet retain the melodic accessibility of more traditional music.

“We don’t want to be so abstract that it becomes abrasive or noise,” Utesch says.

As he and Boyd we’re planning for the next phase of the band’s work, they learned about Roembke’s SoundWalk project, and it was an ideal fit.

“SoundWalk immediately became the thing that connected all the dots,” Utesch says.

By mapping sounds to locations, it removed the linear element of music by design, yet it allowed them to retain more traditional aspects, like melodies, in segments on the map.

Right off the bat, Utesch and Boyd got the idea to use SoundWalk to create an entire record mapped to some of their favorite locations around the world.

“We could pull out material from a record and retroactively score it to parks and favorite places of ours anywhere,” Utesch says. “So along with listening to the music on Spotify or an LP, you would be encouraged to go to some park in Chicago to fully hear track four or a beach to hear track six.”

It’s a process known as “spatial scoring,” and Utesch says he’s only seen one other band that appears to have done something similar with a record several years back. Their app has since been disabled.

Now, Metavari wants to give it a go themselves.

The team of Utesch, Boyd, and Roembke decided to test the concept at Middle Waves, and it has proven to be a great starting point, Utesch says.

Since McCulloch Park has a circular layout with a gazebo at the center and sidewalks that emerge from it like sun rays, it’s been easy to section off the park into different pieces of music.

“Immediately, I could see these divisions, so I started drawing lines and thinking about how the flow of an arrangement would progress,” Utesch says.

SoundWalk allows composers to create different sections of music for different parts of a park or location.

Even so, navigating how to compose music for SoundWalk has its hurdles, too, starting with how to talk about it. Since there’s no formal vocabulary to describe the process of spatial scoring, the team found themselves inventing their own language.

Are parts of the park called “sections” or “zones”? What about a zone within a zone?

“There’s always a fun conversation that happens between people when they’re working on music together because you have different ways of feeling things,” Utesch says. “Now, add a map to that conversation, and it gets really goofy.”

Another challenge is the infinite range of options SoundWalk offers composers.

For instance, a sound can be mapped to a section of land, or a tree, or a zone around a tree. The sound can change by day or night, rain or shine—or even how fast someone is walking, Utesch says.

It’s all a matter of the composer’s choice.

“It’s like I’ve been writing music on an x-y axis my whole life, and now there’s a z-axis,” Utesch says. “It’s this whole other dimension.”

Then there’s the unsettling fact that listeners may or may not hear all of the sounds within a song if they don’t reach certain trigger points.

“There’s something selfishly hard about that, as a composer,” Utesch says. “You have to be OK with the fact that some things will collect dust.”

At the same time, the beauty of SoundWalk is that, in some ways, it makes the listener the composer, allowing them to revisit the same space over and over again, and discover nuances in the music or the elements of the day. It’s a different song every time.

SoundWalk provides people with a new type of place-based listening.

If and when Utesch and Boyd make that global SoundWalk record, they may even try to arrange the songs in the physical environment.

“We’ve talked about building out songs, and applying them to a map, like McCulloch Park, but how we record the album is walking through that space, knowing where the triggers are, and using that recording,” Utesch says. “In this way, the album would be written in a traditional studio, but physically arranged by walking around McCulloch Park. There might be mistakes, but I think that would feel really true to the beast of what SoundWalk is.”

While the McCulloch Park project is made for the public to enjoy, it has taken on personal significance for Utesch, too.

In 2018, his friend Brinneman who helped start Metavari was diagnosed with a rare form of cancerous mesothelioma. He passed away in March 2020. Utesch says the SoundWalk project will be the first piece he and Boyd have created since Brinneman’s passing, and listeners will hear the influences of that in their work.

“It’s so very drenched in Ty’s memory,” Utesch says. “Of course, that’s a happy thing, but there’s also sadness and emptiness to it.”

Emerging in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this emptiness against the warming weather of early summer is likely to be something that resonates with listeners.

For anyone who wants to preview a SoundWalk experience before Middle Waves, you can try it now at the Little Turtle Memorial at Lawton Park.

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When Roembke created SoundWalk, he hoped it would help people, like Utesch, push the limits on their creative work, yet at the same time, make their work more approachable to the public.

“That’s the hope that started it all,” Roembke says. “It’s the idea that I could do something to push things, but in a way that people would be down for it.”

In many ways, what helps people engage with unfamiliar experiences is context, Roembke explains.

“It’s like when you watch a horror movie that has bizarre music in it, but because the music is in the context of the movie, you understand it on a different level than if you simply listened to it on your headphones at home,” he says.

Along with putting creative media into context for listeners, SoundWalk can also lend context to a place.

That’s the idea behind Roembke’s first SoundWalk project for the Little Turtle Memorial at Lawton Park in Fort Wayne: “Voices of the Myaamiaki,” developed with the Myaamia Center at Miami University in Ohio.

The Little Turtle Memorial at Lawton Park honors Chief Little Turtle, a Myaamia leader dedicated to peace.

Myaamia (plural Myaamiaki) is the Miami Tribe’s autonym for themselves in their language. The tribe once lived on Fort Wayne’s land before the area was brutally conquered by General Anthony Wayne.

While Roembke has been a Fort Wayne resident all his life, he developed a passion for learning about its Native American history in college when he discovered the writings of George Ironstrack, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and educator at the Miami Center.

“I was really taken by this writing, and it totally changed how I looked at Fort Wayne,” Roembke says.

Over the years, he’s wanted to help Ironstrack increase awareness about modern Native American culture.

Across the U.S., people tend to talk about Native Americans as if they are extinct, Roembke says. But there are many living Myaamiaki who are active citizens of Fort Wayne and other cities today—their voices are just obscured, he explains.

It was by going to tribal meetings that Roembke was inspired to use SoundWalk as a platform to elevate their voices. “Voices of the Myaamiaki" is the first full SoundWalk experience Roembke developed.

“I asked them: If you could change anything about living in Fort Wayne what would it be?” Roembke says. “The recurring message from the people was just: More visibility.”

By mapping the stories of modern Myaamiaki to the Little Turtle Memorial, SoundWalk draws attention to the tribe’s presence through its past and makes uncomfortable aspects of Fort Wayne's history more approachable to modern citizens, too.

The 15-minute experience includes both silly and serious stories, Roembke says. He hopes locals take advantage of it to begin wrestling with the sins of their city's past, so they can contribute to a better future.

“It’s hard to grow anything if you’re ignoring where it’s been,” he explains. “A lot of people talk about learning through travel, but there’s a really dense and rich history here, too. It’s hard to look at sometimes, but it should be looked at. Hopefully, this grows your understanding of what it means to live in Fort Wayne.”

In the age of placemaking, SoundWalk gives residents tools to analyze and rethink where they live and visit. Perhaps it can humanize places, too.

Take another project Roembke is working on with Fort Wayne performance artist Kara Doak, as an example.

This time, the experience is not mapped to a specific park or memorial. Instead, it can adjust to your location, wherever you are walking.

Over the course of several weeks, Roembke and Doak collected intimate voicemail messages from people at nighttime about the theme of nighttime.

“It’s derived from our experiences of a weird time of day when things feel more magical, and you feel more personal,” Roembke explains.

The goal is to have these pre-recorded messages trigger at certain points as you walk, coming in like radio frequencies to remind you that you are not alone.

“We’re trying to turn your neighborhood into this interactive art experience, and make those distant voices feel closer to you,” Roembke says. “We’re trying to use these digital media forms to express how close you are to people who are actually far away.”

Under the regime of social distancing, finding creative ways to feel closer to others is an art form, too.

Have an idea for SoundWalk?

The SoundWalk app plays recordings that react to the GPS positioning of your smartphone.

“Whatever your creativity can make of that, that’s what you can do with it,” Roembke says.

As he builds out the app, he’s open to hearing anyone’s creative concepts for how it can be used. Fill out the contact form at the bottom of SoundWalk’s website to submit an idea or offer feedback on a current SoundWalk experience.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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