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Artist’s passion for creative coding includes video gaming and “SoundWalks” through history

Roembke in the field, demonstrating his Fairfield Corridor SoundWalk App.
Courtesy/Kurt Roembke
Roembke in the field, demonstrating his Fairfield Corridor SoundWalk App.

Fort Wayne creative Kurt Roembke enjoys combining his passions for music, coding and video game development in the most artcentric ways.

Roemke’s development of this multi-faceted skill set began at age six, when he learned to play classical guitar and it continue to evolve in new and meaningful ways as he builds a portfolio of accomplishments that includes personal endeavors as well as local, national and international collaborations.

WBOI’s Julia Meek talks with him about the evolution of this curios combination, the fine points of creative coding and his latest SoundWalk project.

You can connect with Roembke and learn more about his work on his Facebook page.

Julia Meek: Kurt Roembke, welcome.

Kurt Roembke: Hello.

Julia Meek: You are a creative coder and a composer turned techie. Please start there; very briefly, what is it that you do?

Kurt Roembke: I focus on creative work that often incorporates creative coding and developing. So I make apps and I code video games and I'm even dabbling in websites right now. (chuckles) But yeah, otherwise I collaborate with my music, especially with dancers and film and yeah, just all sorts of art projects. I kind of jump from thing to thing, depending on what I'm feeling at the time. (chuckles)

Julia Meek: Always with creatives, sounds like.

Kurt Roembke: Yeah.

Julia Meek: Now how did this passion begin and eventually morph into the present set of skills that you would need for that?

Kurt Roembke: I always wanted to be a filmmaker growing up; I always played music, too and I started very young. Laura Lydy taught me to play classical guitar, you know, when I was six, and from there, I just kind of always kept music going too. So I guess in that way, I've always been kind of generally interested in art, but I was also dabbling in these different things.

And so after a while, they all just started to kind of coalesce and my interests and how I want to create and projects I want to make just aren't quite stuck to those individual art forms, I guess.

Julia Meek: All musicians certainly are not into the technological end of things, the techie part of it. What is it about that that calls your name, that did really, really hook you?

Kurt Roembke: I think it just started as a necessity because I had a project idea, and I wanted to do it. (laughs) And that was a Soundwalk, but just having an interest in creating music that was connected to physical locations using your phones, and so of course, the moment you start talking developing for phones, you have to figure out how to talk their language. (chuckles)

Julia Meek: Fair enough. Sure, sure.

Kurt Roembke: Yeah. And I ended up really loving coding and now I'm almost like more interested in that aspect than many other aspects of what I do, so.

Julia Meek: Well, so focusing on the audio side of game development for a minute, which is one of the things that you do, what sorts of collaboration has this led you to since you did take the deep dive into that arena?

Kurt Roembke: Yeah, so with video games, I do a lot of what are called game jams, which is when you make games with a group of people for like 24 hours, 48 hours and kind of make a bunch of projects together. And I've been organizing and community in town of game developers.

But with collaborations, I've currently working on a project in Montreal, and I also worked on a different video game where I scored and did all the music and sound for that in Toronto. Weirdly, all the games I've done that were bigger releases were from Canada. (laughs)

Julia Meek: That's interesting. So now add your classical music passion and that education to the mix that you've developed. Where does it all fit when you put it all together? And how does it enhance that range of possibilities that you now have?

Kurt Roembke: Especially with the coding, I mostly use coding to create projects that are about like adaptive music and music that isn't tied to a linear form. And so with the interaction with video games, and with creative coding, you can kind of think about music outside of the traditional linear form that you learn by listening to pop music or classical music.

And so it's nice because I could do those types of projects, but also bring what I've learned from the traditional sources of music and kind of attach that knowledge and theory to the coding that I'm doing.

Julia Meek: Oh very interesting.

Kurt Roembke: So I can actually making, creating systems within coding that are intelligent to the actual, like theories of how music works, so that helps.

Julia Meek: Yes, and by now, do you actually think in those terms? I mean, do you simultaneously think of music as its own pure form and also the electronic and those coding capabilities would you say?

Kurt Roembke: Um, I don't know. (chuckles) Personally, I don't think about composing music in a more linear sense anymore. I think because I've been doing the coding and stuff, I almost feel more at home conveying my own, like creative musical work through these types of coding projects.

Yeah, there's just something exciting to me about interaction and so I almost would prefer to make music with these like systems that I'm building rather than, like, you know, writing a song on the guitar and singing over it.

And I still do that but yeah, there's just something about creating a system that can make music on its own or something. (laughs) It's just really fun.

Julia Meek: And all together, it certainly makes you more versatile.

Kurt Roembke: Yeah.

Julia Meek: So okay, let's put all of this together now and look at your brainchild, which is called SoundWalk. It is a free smartphone app that pairs music and stories to places, actual places, using GPS technology. Now, that's a powerful endeavor, powerful tool. Would you explain it very, very briefly for all of us to understand?

Kurt Roembke: Sure. Yeah. So SoundWalk is an app that essentially just maps audio and maybe a narrative piece, like think a walking tour or a musical piece where you're listening to music, but the music is driven by your location so you download the app and walk through specific parks that we've prepared, and then your position through that park will then derive the audio. It's pretty hands free. And it's pretty easy to use in that regard.

Julia Meek: User friendly, but also, it doesn't scare your users?

Kurt Roembke: I hope not! (laughs) Unless that's the intent of the audio, I guess.

Julia Meek: But that would be a different subject matter. And in fact, you've got three of these SoundWalks under your belt.

Kurt Roembke: Mmmhhmm.

Julia Meek: Good for you. What's the range of topics?

Kurt Roembke: So there's the Little Turtle Memorial, which is specifically about the local Myaamia people and kind of talking about what it's like to live in Fort Wayne as someone who was removed at some point, but their families have stayed.

So just kind of the experience of of that.

The second one is Metavari's McCulloch piece. And that's just a full on really fun, abstract music experience where you know, it's like really upbeat electronics and...

Julia Meek: That is the band, Metavari?

Kurt Roembke: Yes, by Metavari. And then the third piece is a walking tour, very similar to the Little Turtle in form, but it's about the history of the Fairfield Corridor. And also, it's kind of a really wide range of topics within that even. It's got some geology, it's got information about buildings that don't exist anymore, maybe stories from individuals who live in the area, or who used to live in the area.

So it's kind of a big mix of different types of concepts.

(excerpt) Here at Lutheran Park, the thing you notice the most is sticking out of the lawn, a bunch of whitish grayish rocks, these rocks come from quarries that are nearby, they very much look like the rock that's straight underneath it.

Julia Meek: So it really brings us all up close and personal to the past, present and in a way future of Fairfield Avenue and its legacy?

Kurt Roembke: Yeah, yeah. Especially the future, I think it's interesting to listen to people's perspectives of the area and kind of see where it's been. And then hopefully gives people the creativity to see where they could fit in, you know, in the future history of the of the space, so...

Julia Meek: Nice touch, nice touch. (chuckles) Now, on the subject of storytelling and pride of place, both of those are certainly trending right now and that's a beautiful thing. How do you intend for your SoundWalk and the capability they will have going forward to benefit both of those endeavors in particular?

Kurt Roembke: Fort Wayne is definitely in this period of growth. And really, the main goal for two of the informational pieces, especially are kind of thinking about what it means to grow. And what is it that drives growth? And is it always a good thing? And how can you do it mindfully so that you're not creating new bad histories that we will again, talk about on a future SoundWalk. (chuckles)

But even with the music, just making people think about the spaces that they have access to every day, and maybe they walk through this park all the time, but this time, they can have this full music score, that changes how they see the spaces around them even. And also, hopefully, for them to, like I said earlier, maybe be creative in the, in that they can do something like this, too. They can reform their surroundings using these technologies, or however they see to do it.

Julia Meek: That's fantastic. What kind of response are you getting?

Kurt Roembke: It's pretty good, especially because Indiana in general is really interested, like you said, in these types of projects. It's fairly easy to get people on board, and they seem to really gravitate to the idea. It's a really exciting idea usually, when I talk to people about it, they're always kind of lighting up like, Oh, that's a really fun idea.

But yeah, it seems to be a pretty easy thing to tell people about and get them excited about. I do think I could get more people downloading them and trying them. But that's always the case. (chuckles)

Julia Meek: And time will take care of that, we hope too. So all together it sounds like you're satisfied with this progress. Where are you bent on taking it next?

Kurt Roembke: It seems like every time I think maybe no one's interested in it, then there's a couple more people that come up and yeah, I'm in conversation with several other people in town who want to do more pieces. And because I'm into video games, and especially narrative type projects, I've always been kind of kicking around ideas for more narrative pieces that are fictionalized.

So even doing some kind of like crossover video games, SoundWalk projects. So yeah, just thinking about different ways of, of making people interact with their environments.

Julia Meek: So now speaking on all of your collaborative efforts, and they are certainly varied and certainly exciting, Kurt. So if you're reaching all the way to Canada now with your collaborations, and it sounds like the more you reach out and make those connections, the more collaborations you're going to have.

Kurt Roembke: Sure.

Julia Meek: How far might that go?

Kurt Roembke: Well uh, (chuckles) I mean, the internet is a beautiful thing, in that you can reach everywhere and even now I'm kind of building connections, some of the other work that I'm doing and some of the things I'm thinking about right now are connecting me to artists all over, even in, like in Europe and in Korea.

And you know, especially thinking about what the internet is, the types of work that I'm doing, essentially, I've found myself in a group of creative thinkers all over the world that are thinking about these types of topics like sustainability and the internet and how to push forward and grow but also healthily, and you know, not damaging anything as you do it. (laughs)

Julia Meek: Sure, sure!

Kurt Roembke: So yeah, I found that the internet is really great at connecting people who are considering these types of things.

Julia Meek: Interesting, too, as you say, you've got a global reach, global interests. And also you've got gamers, you've got eco-friendly people, you've got musicians, you've got mass markets in which to appeal. Are you feeling the snowballing effect of that, maybe now?

Kurt Roembke: Maybe, yeah, but I think the snowball is more just my finally understanding what, what I value. So the snowball is, is more so like a comfort and that, you know, as I dive down these rabbit holes of my interests, (chuckles) I'll always find other people who are interested in it, and care for it. So I think that's the snowball, for sure.

Julia Meek: That's great, because that is increasing, and it will only continue; fantastic. And now please dream as big for a second here, Kurt, as you can. (chuckles) And we know how big that might be. If you could do anything in the world, anything on that creative coding playing field right now, sky's the limit. What would it be?

Kurt Roembke: It's sort of what I'm kind of pushing for right now. But just maybe if it were on a bigger scale. Right now, I'm just really interested in the sustainability of these types of technologies and trying to figure out if there's ways to, you know, like, being in video games, you know, it's a pretty wasteful and destructive thing to be in.(chuckles)

You consume lots of energy building these things. And so that's a lot of the conversation is just how can we like right now I'm kind of dreaming big as, like, I would love to make video games that are fully solar powered, not just the actual development, but even how you consume them is solar.

So, just thinking about ways to draw these different types of energy and more sustainable energy and making video games because it's just one of those things. I'm into it. And I obviously love it but you know, we all have to think about how it's affecting everything.

Julia Meek: Sure and you have to think about your next steps. And so dream big today and enact it tomorrow?

Kurt Roembke: Yeah. (laughs)

Julia Meek: And meanwhile, Kurt, back to the SoundWalking. As you do turn those neighborhoods into interactive art experiences, and that's such a noble goal. What do you want everyone that goes on one of those sound walks to take away with them from those experiences?

Kurt Roembke: I think mostly just I hope they're curious to dig deeper into the things that are presented, right? A lot of it is these types of concepts about the spaces that they live in and walk through every day.

And there's always just kind of a hidden thing just under the surface no matter where you look and hopefully it kind of digs some of that out. And then they can dig deeper. Like I wish I could just go all the way down the rabbit hole, right, when I'm working on these projects, but you can only do so much with the time and the money.

So hopefully people will hear something and then be like, oh, I need to dig into that history even deeper.

Julia Meek: Kurt Roembke is a creative coder and composer and designer of SoundWalk. Thank you for helping the world tell its story, Kurt, continued success.

Kurt Roembke: Thank you

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.