Step onto a sidewalk in almost any U.S. city and you’ll see swarms of people with headphones, each plugged into a personal soundtrack as they traverse the streetscape.
But in Indianapolis this summer, if you passed by certain buildings, you might have seen clusters of wired students all nodding their heads to the same beat.
Since June, more than 700 students and others have gathered to listen to Hip Hoperetta, a project from Indianapolis’ Harrison Center for the Arts that combines city history, walking tours and music. Hip Hoperetta is a collection of songs about the history of Indy places that participants listen to in tour groups — with the same type of headphones that are used at silent disco parties — while walking through those places.
Two paid interns that the Harrison Center recruited specifically for this project, Sammie Brown and Okara Imani, wrote and recorded the music. So far for Hip Hoperetta’s pilot phase they have created two musical walking tours: a seven-song tour of Indy’s historic John Herron Art Institute (present-day Herron High School), and a six-song tour mostly through the interior of the Harrison Center campus.
The primary goal of Hip Hoperetta is to “breathe musical life,” as Brown put it, into the stories of Indianapolis’ historic buildings and personalities, using sound to educate listeners about the places they pass by every day.
“When you add a melody, you add a pattern, so you add a level of retention to the information,” Imani says, which should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever used a mnemonic device. “And then if someone can listen to [our music] in their free time, out of the context of the tour … then that has become something that they can always bring to mind.”
Harrison Center Executive Director Joanna Taft says the project was inspired in part by “Hamilton,” the Broadway hit that has made a natural pairing of American history and contemporary music. But unlike that show, Hip Hoperetta’s music isn’t sung down from a stage; it is an accompaniment to its own subject matter.
“We wanted it to be creative and immersive and this dramatic experience, but we also had the responsibility of making sure that information was communicated in that moment to the people taking the tours,” Brown says.
So in a song on the Harrison Center’s Speck Gallery, they rhyme about what the listener’s eye is taking in (the distinctive ceiling beams, the media room “right there”) and give a brief history of the gallery’s transformation from a chapel to its present-day state.
Imani and Brown want the listener’s experience to go beyond knowledge of local history. As they described it, Hip Hoperetta is built on the idea that learning about and interacting with a city’s history and architecture can inspire more engaged citizens.
“The music aspect is meant to bring the [historical] information closer to the person listening, to make it more easily relatable and make it feel like something that they could empathize with,” Imani says. “To feel closer to that information and closer to those events, you feel more and more invested, and you start to think how you can actually start to play an active role in the continuation of the story you’ve been made aware of.”
It’s not an unusual philosophy; similar ideas can be found underlying efforts in historic preservation and public art. This section of the National Historic Preservation Act comes to mind:
The preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.
“The idea of place, and celebrating your place, is sweeping the country,” Taft says. “Indy is experiencing that and has been experiencing that in a big way. It’s a really exciting time to tell your story and feel like you’re a part of that story.”
(Credit: Harrison Center for the Arts)
For Imani, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, there’s also a particular quality to the city that informed Hip Hoperetta.
“As I got older, it started to feel like one of those places where it’s generally quiet, or it’s not buzzing like New York City might be, but there’s always something that you can go find to do,” she says. “It feels a little bit like hidden gems all over the place … . It’s conducive to that ‘go seek-and-find’ kind of learning.”
So it seems natural that, unlike historical plaques or traditional public art pieces, which are open for viewing to all passersby, Hip Hoperetta is both public and intimate. Put on the silent disco headphones, and you’re let in on the secrets of Indy’s historic or cultural sites that are right in front of you.
Hip Hoperetta is one of several similar projects tying music and place together. You can get a different interpretation of Indy via Sound Expeditions, a collection of commissioned works associated with locations throughout the city. Since the early 2000s, Soundwalk has created dozens of semi-fictional audio tours across more than five countries. Some projects, like John Luther Adam’s “Soundwalk 9:09,” incorporate sounds recorded straight from the streets they’re meant to accompany.
Though their form and subjects may vary, these projects all aim to add a layer of music or sound to the experience of a specific place — “augmented aurality,” as one group has deemed it. And if there was ever a good moment for this medium, it’s now; as Pokemon Go has proved, people are more than willing to explore their cityscapes on foot with augmented reality experiences.
Moving forward from Hip Hoperetta’s pilot phase, Taft says that tours will be offered as part of a monthly first Fridays program or during the week on request.
The ultimate goal is to expand the musical history tours’ scope to more locations throughout Indy. A choreographed dance element that was waylaid this summer may also eventually be added.
“We want it to feel like [participants] are fully immersed in an experience that’s taking them around the city, or around a certain block, or around [Monument Circle] downtown, so that they are discovering little bits of history about places that they maybe didn’t know were there,” Imani says. “[We want] that ownership of feeling closer to something than you did before.”
Jackie Strawbridge is a freelance writer interested in cities, public space and public art. As a local reporter, her work has appeared in several print and digital outlets in western Queens, NYC. She reports on public art pieces and policy at Site Specific.