By Ricky O’Bannon
Russian media artist, musician and engineer Dmitry Morozov — who operates under the name ::vtol:: — recently debuted an automated instrument called “silk” that tracks the real-time valuations of two online cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and Litecoin.
Bitcoin and Litecoin are essentially digital currencies used mostly online, which are uncontrolled or regulated by any government. The installation consists of two large poles connected to five strings, each of which correspond to traditional currencies: the U.S. dollar, Yuan, Euro, Canadian dollar and the Russian ruble. The strings are tuned automatically by a computer algorithm based on the often-changing valuations of Bitcoin and Litecoin in those currencies.
The term for what Morozov is doing in his installation is “sonification.” At its most basic, sonification describes assigning sound to data. Data is only useful when it can be processed in a meaningful way, and translating the pulse of a doctor’s patient into the beeps of a heart rate monitor or the levels of radiation into the pops of a Geiger counter allow listeners to understand make sense of data much faster than they could with numerical readings.
In the case of Morozov’s silk where data is translated into something that has more musical aspiration than say a heart rate monitor, sonification is nothing new. Fourty-five years ago, computer music composer Charles Dodge, a student of Gunther Schuller and Darius Milhaud, looked to translate the magnetic waves of the earth into musical notation.
What is new, however, is the sheer amount of data that’s available for composers or sound engineers to play with, and in the case of Morozov, the available technology to create something that sonifies that data in real time. In recent years, there has been an explosion in the field, and the results are increasingly sophisticated. In 2006, the Georgia Institute of Technology launched a contemporary music ensemble, Sonic Generator, which regularly experiments with sonification, music and technology.
Sonification is in an interesting place right now. For the most part, efforts to sonify cyrptocurrencies or data from algae seem more like conceptual art installation or experiment than the kind of musical composition that might find its way to the concert hall — much in the same way many might view something like John Cage’s work to electrify and play an amplified cactus with a feather more as music philosophizing than traditional composing. In many ways, it is the ultimate in process-driven music.
But arguably sonification is a natural extension of what composers looking to channel nature have always done. Whether it’s Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony complete with then cutting-edge sound effects to replicate a spring thunderstorm or Mason Bates’ Liquid Interface that uses field recordings of glaciers breaking in the Antarctic, composers have always sought to describe the natural world with whatever musical tools available to them. As our scientific ability to describe and measure that natural world evolves, so do those musical tools.
Take for example composer Robert Alexander who was profiled a few years back by Vice’s Motherboard. Based at the University of Michigan, Alexander worked with data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, which is a spacecraft from NASA and the European Space Agency that measures weather on the sun. Alexander found that assigning musical attributes to individual aspects of that data could allow researchers to hear changes in carbon levels that could signal a solar flare, which might cause electronic disturbances on Earth.
Alexander has also used that data and sonification process to create a standalone composition, which is based off of solar wind data captured in 2003.
There’s something deeply compelling about hearing sonified music, knowing that the musical patterns are linked to the natural logic of systems found on this world or beyond. Or in the case of Morozov’s silk, hearing man-made systems that are normally ethereal and out-of-sight translated to discordant musical sounds carries with it a dose of the same ethos of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi, which musically offers an unsettling glimpse at the industrial sprawl of the modern human landscape.
You might never hear a symphony based on solar wind data in a concert hall near you, but the field is producing some fascinating work. Above all else, it reflects a desire to understand the world through music, which is something we can all relate to — even if we don’t understand the math behind sonified cryptocurrency fluctuations.