Musical artists like Nouvelle Vague and Björk have already started using mobile and tablet apps as a way to promote or add value to their records, but a recent project called The Book of Sarth is using the app format to a slightly different end. A graphic novel and album mash-up, the app is an intriguing rethink of what album artwork can be in the digital age — and may even prove to be a platform for a new kind of narrative storytelling.
On one level, the $7.99 app is a dystopian storybook; it tells the tale of a strange artifact that's discovered by a pair of children. The artifact produces sounds that induce a heightened state of consciousness, and when the audio is uploaded to the internet all hell breaks loose. Sinister government forces sweep in to censor the transmissions lest they wake a subdued population, while an underground collective fights to keep them available.
A multidisciplinary approach
It's all set against 30 minutes of original music written and performed by Sarth Calhoun (the tracks can be transferred out of the app to be listened to separately). An electronic artist who's part of Lou Reed's improvisational Metal Music Trio, Calhoun says the project originated from a desire to pull together different creative elements — animation, visuals, and artwork — that often don't fit together into a cohesive whole for musicians. "You kind of sell your music, and then maybe at your live show you have some video behind you or some lights, or you put a video on YouTube," he says. But with an app "I can take all these ideas and these interests and combine it into one thing."
"You can say this is the most deluxe album artwork ever."
The art is beautiful unto itself, each page filled with inset images that shift, fade, or change. Things really come alive in what's called the "director's view": tap an image and the artwork fills the screen, putting the reader in the same place as the characters, witnessing the effects of the sonic artifact firsthand. "I got really inspired by the Comixology platform," Calhoun says, referring to the automated view Comixology provides that guides readers through the different panels of a graphic novel or comic. "You can say this is the most deluxe album artwork ever," he states, "Or in a way it's like opera, too. It's a visual — and potentially narrative — experience driven by the music."
What's remarkable is how effective it all is. Calhoun's music is no doubt experimental, but his tracks and the artwork play nimbly off one another. Without getting too heavily into story details, there's a delightfully meta aspect to The Book of Sarth, and the theme of technology fighting oppressive power structures feels perfectly suited for both the medium and the type of music Calhoun makes. (One wonders how another cross-media album, Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero, could have taken advantage of this type of format had it existed at the time.)
"It feels weird. To just buy the song and listen to it.
That's not to say Book is a one-off. Calhoun and his collective of artists are already preparing additional releases using the graphic-driven album format — dubbed "gralbum" — with cellist Leah Coloff's This Tree slated for release in the coming months. Ultimately, Calhoun hopes the format provides a way for people to experience music in a way that's richer than the digital download and easy-access streaming norm. "I think that's something that we're missing when we buy music. It feels weird. To just buy the song and listen to it."
"I think people really underestimate how much context changes the way they perceive music," he says, explaining that everything from traditional album artwork to a narrative-fueled app can alter the way people interpret and interact with the songs they hear — creating entirely new experiences in the process. "I think this is the next step in that."
The Book of Sarth is currently available for download in the iOS App Store (unfortunately the app doesn't yet take full advantage of the larger screen of the iPhone 5 and latest iPod touch). While no Android version is in the pipeline just yet, Calhoun hopes to bring gralbums to Google's operating system should there be sufficient interest.