REIMAGINE A CLASSIC SONG
How Valentina D’Elfilippo visualised Bowie’s Space Oddity from 10 different angles
Interest in how we conceptualise, understand and visualise information has fuelled my practice. I use data as a raw material from which I find my perspective and express what resonates with me, while hoping that others will find it compelling, too.
My personal interest in data visualisation took off more than 10 years ago, when working on my thesis for a postgraduate degree in visual communication. By exploring bias in gender cues that children receive through visual stereotypes, I started to collect and visualise data. Since then, I have continued to explore the world through data by collecting, deconstructing and mapping information.
Data can be found all around us, in where we go, what we consume, touch, read, watch or hear. My latest self-initiated project explores the application of dataviz techniques to music – giving form to what we hear, imagine and feel while listening to a song. OddityViz is also a tribute to an extraordinary artist, David Bowie.
DECONSTRUCT THE SONG
David Bowie left us with a constellation of intersecting worlds, loaded with material for celebration, consideration and interpretation. From the start of the project, it quickly
“Simple shapes were used to encode sounds and narrative patterns”
became apparent that it was necessary to limit the scope and focus to one song.
What would Space Oddity look like turned into images or through data visualisation? This is what I and data researcher Miriam Quick set out to explore in OddityViz. We extracted musical data from the track and visualised it in a set of 10 engraved records, paired with large-scale prints and projections that draw from the song’s fragmented interstellar world.
Each 12-inch disc deconstructs the song differently – by instrumentation, rhythm, melody, harmony, lyrics, structure or the underlying story. Rather than abstract soundscapes, the records become a visual system to understand how Bowie masterfully crafted Major Tom’s journey.
TURN AUDIO INTO VISUAL
Our intention was not to create an alternative visual score but to make the experience of listening to a song more ‘visible’. By breaking down its core components and piecing them back together, we can end up with a deeper understanding of our initial experience.
We can think of traditional music notation as a kind of visualisation: pitch height corresponds to vertical height on the stave and the type of note describes the tempo. This system was created for musicians to perform. As you learn how to read it, the language becomes meaningful and legible. In a similar way, our visual encoding needed clear annotation, a key and writing to surface the insights.
FIND THE RIGHT FORMAT
The range of outcomes – computational animations, large-scale posters, engraved discs and a window installation – allowed us to experiment with how to best encode the narrative. It took months of exploration and many hours of listening to the song on repeat and sketching out ideas. A turning point that defined most of the visual language was deciding to experiment with a new medium, creating sculptural data-objects.
The vinyl record was an obvious reference. From Edison’s phonograph to today’s vinyl records, music has been encoded through a series of grooves that spiral to the centre of the circular disc. Applying a similar logic, I wanted the musical data to be engraved. This decision forced me to work with no colour, using white on black, which also recalls the light of the stars in the darkness of space. The format also defined the system to encode the data – time around the circumference becomes a universal axis that allows comparison across visualisations.
Given the constraints of laser cutting and etching on records, a minimal, bold design was imperative. Simple geometry and shapes were used to encode sounds – evoking the nature of each individual instrument – and narrative patterns. Ground Control was represented by a square – a familiar, safe, angular shape that represents a point of stability on Earth – while Major Tom was a circle, a more human character, who becomes one with the cosmos.
This visual investigation was then brought to life with animation, in a freer attempt to
link various aspects of the deconstruction to the actual music. Collaborating with Mike Brondbjerg, a talented generative artist, we created a moving image including a generative portrait of Bowie and a series of sequences, which Mike coded in processing, and others that I animated in After Effects.
MAKE THE VISION HAPPEN
When approaching a new project, I find it helpful to set out a strong creative direction to guide me through the design process and limit the decisions I will have to make later on. On the other hand, not knowing where I am going excites me and I like to allow the subject to inform the creative process.
Moods and inspiration for this project included a variety of visual references from popular culture to experimental music notation resources and the Voyager Golden Records. Space Oddity comes with a wealth of visual inspiration to draw on from this very interesting period in popular culture.
One of the discs, Trip, references Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey which was one of the main inspirations for this song. This record stands out from the rest due to its use of a distinct visual language – emoji. Rather than being driven by data, it utilises illustration and images that loosely code for text and incorporates visual metaphors from the movie.
Thanks to the support of Wieden+Kennedy, we were able to exhibit the project in London to mark the first anniversary of Bowie’s death. Since then, it has been on the road, with mini installations and talks across the world from London to Milan, to Minneapolis. The project also won an Information is Beautiful Award.
02-03 Work in progress images outlining what became the Trip version of Space Oddity. 04-05 Closeup details of the project.
01 Sketchbooks outlines for the different systems used, representing 10 different angles from which to look at Space Oddity, including Rhythm, Texture, Trip and Emotions.
06 Different methods have been used to present the project on the vinyl records, including emojis and shapes. 07 The visualisations have also been transformed into an animation that can be viewed at www.oddityviz.com 08-09 Each visualisation is...