Data Sonification in Creative Practice

Abstract

Sonification is the process of data transmission with non-speech audio. While finding increasing acceptance as a scientific method, particularly where a visual representation of data is inadequate, it is still often derided as a ‘gimmick’. Composers have also shown growing interest in sonification as a compositional method. Both in science and in music, the criticism towards this method relates to poor aesthetics and gratuitous applications. This thesis aims to address these issues through an accompanying portfolio of pieces which use sonification as a compositional tool. It establishes the principles of ‘musification’, which can be defined as a sonification which uses musical structures; a sonification organised by musical principles. The portfolio explores a number of data sources, musical genres and science-music collaborations.

 

Blyth-Eastbourne-Wembury (2015)

for fixed media – 8’

Blyth-Eastbourne-Wembury is a stereo fixed-media piece composed as a commission for the National Union of Students (NUS) and to be played at the Eden Project in Cornwall as part of the launch of the SOS (Students Organizing Sustainability) Network. The organisation was seeking artists who engaged with issues relating to climate change and sustainability as well as encouraging their audiences to engage in these topics. For this particular performance of the piece on 9 November 2015, two speakers were placed in a bamboo hut in the jungle biome of the Eden Project.

The piece combines the sonification of data describing rising sea temperatures measured on the British shores with a coastal soundscape. The rising temperatures and salinity measured at Eastbourne and the English Channel since 1892 are mapped to sine waves. The resulting dissonances create a sense of alarm and danger, while the cyclical nature of the data reflects the waves heard throughout the piece. The soundscape through the work progresses from a coastal soundscape free of human interference to one full of human intervention. The recordings took place at Wembury beach and Sutton Harbour in Plymouth.

 

Sonification of Dark Matter (2016)

Audio-visual sonification – 1’

Sonification of Dark Matter was developed in collaboration with Dr Ralf Kähler from the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University. The data of dark matter simulations should be made audible. The team at Stanford had already created some visualisations of the simulations and the sonification should accompany and enhance these otherwise silent videos. The audio and sound are therefore created from the same datasets!

The sonification of the dark matter simulations should accompany the visualisation but also support the understanding of dark matter. The listener’s cognitive experience is expanded by the sonic element, which hopefully also expands their cognitive bandwidth to comprehend such large and complex data.

Three dark matter phenomena were sonified: a dark matter halo, dark matter streams and a dark universe. Interesting data parameters were mapped to a number of musical parameters used to synthesise sounds and transform recorded sounds. The most effective sound mappings were retained and combined with a particular focus on musical quality and listener experience. The audio-visual installation was presented at Plymouth University’s Immersive Vision Theatre on 26-28 February 2016.

Sonification of Dark Matter received considerable media attention in the Observer, Independent, Nature Physics and Physics World.

The Observer – If you could listen in to dark matter, just what would it sound like?

Independent – Dark matter: Invisible material to be represented through medium of song

Nature Physics – Music: The music of particle collisions

 

The Voice of the Sea (2017)

live electronics – ca. 10’

The Voice of the Sea real-time data collected by a marine buoy located at Looe (South-East Cornwall). The data received determine the compositional choices as the piece is performed, so every performance is different. We first hear a direct mapping of the altitude of the buoy to a specified frequency range. As the system receives more data, it will determine whether the sea is calm and stormy and begin changing the piece accordingly to reflect the state of the sea. During a performance, the listeners are surrounded by speakers; they become immersed in an augmented real-time marine soundscape.

The Voice of the Sea combines synthesised sounds and recorded sounds from the coast of Looe. It is a piece of live electronics, as the composer or other performer makes some compositional choices in reaction to the data received. Additionally, the audience can see a projection showing the number values of the incoming data and a live webcam of Looe’s coast.

The project was developed in collaboration with the Marine Institute and the Channel Coastal Observatory who supplied access to the real-time buoy data. The sound file was recorded in 21 February 2017 for BBC3’s Music Matters programme aired on 27 February 2017 (from 38’). The Voice of the Sea has also been featured in Clot Magazine.

 

Wasgiischwashäsch (2017)

for chamber ensemble – 9’

Wasgiischwashäsch revisits Rossini’s William Tell Ouverture to describe climate change in Switzerland. The climate of the Alps and its surrounding regions is complex, sometimes extreme but also fragile. Switzerland has experienced climate change for decades. Alarmingly, the rate of climate change and the temperature anomalies are far stronger than the global average (Fig. 2). The weather has become more extreme and this trend is predicted to continue.

Rossini’s William Tell Ouverture is virtually universally known, but also strongly connected to Switzerland and its founding myth. Its third movement, the tune Ranz des Vaches, is widely thought of as the unofficial national anthem. In Wasgiischwashäsch, the original score is modified according to climate collected from 1860 to 2015. Musical parameters such as pitch, rhythm, harmony, tempo, dynamics, timbre etc. in the score are determined by the data points in the bar’s allocated timespan. The third (Ranz des Vaches) and fourth (Finale) movements of the Ouverture are used. The data covering the period from 1860 to 1920 display some expected variations in temperature which are small enough to result in rather conventional music. As the decades move on and the rollicking Finale develops, the rising average temperature and anomalies are assigned to extreme tempo, dynamics and registers. The piece ends in an almost unrecognisable interpretation of the originally majestic and heroic material, which highlights the extent of climate change in the Alps.

Wasgiischwashäsch is a piece from contemporary Classical music resulting from a scientific process but is also accessible to larger audiences as it uses a common musical reference, the William Tell Ouverture to transmit information. Ultimately, this is also a fun and enjoyable piece which happens to carry a real message.