Researcher turns weather data into music
A researcher at the University of Connecticut has partnered with a Korean musician to create literal weather music, using data to turn rain, wind and tides into a playable musical composition.
The result is a modern classical-like blend of science and art, the hope for which, Molly James said, was to “foster a deeper connection to nature.”
James is a graduate research assistant and doctorate candidate at UConn, studying the “hydrology of the tides and of water flowing through the channels and the grasses of coastal salt marshes,” as she explained.
She’s also an amateur musician who plays the trombone and tuba. During pandemic lockdowns, James met Sophy Chung, a pianist in South Korea: “We just started talking and doing a language exchange because she’s in South Korea, and I have an interest in K-pop.”
“She’s like, ‘Well, do you want to learn some Korean? I want to practice my English a bit more,’” James recalled. “So we just started doing weekly video chats with language, and then we got to know each other a lot better.”
Chung is what James called a “collaborative pianist,” which James said is “more than just an accompanist, more than just a soloist. She really tries to make a bigger music picture with the people she plays.”
They got to talking, and Chung mentioned a grant opportunity in South Korea worth the equivalent of $20,000, in which researchers were encouraged to combine art and science. So the two did exactly that.
Taking publicly available weather data, Chung and James assigned notes to each data point and derived musical compositions, which Chung then played live on the piano.
The end result is literally weather music, the music of rain, air and tides. James said it’s more “contemporary” in feel.
“There’s daily cycles or daily patterns that occur in data. One of the data types we used was air temperature. So, we had a weeklong record from a weather station, and what we wound up doing was taking the daily maximum, the daily minimum and the daily average. Those three numbers were then translated into a chord,” James said.
Some of those chords “sounded harmonious” while others were “dissonant,” and while there is no melody or theme one
can follow, there is a rising and falling of intensity as the temperature data rises and falls.
Musical decisions on aspects like octave and tempo were, James said, made somewhat arbitrarily, “because we needed sort of a standard or a zero, if you will, for the music to be relative towards.”
For the piece based on air temperature data, they decided the average would be represented by a middle C.
“For instance, if it was one degree Celsius, that would be the middle C, and then everything relative to one degree would be a different relative note to that middle C on the piano,” James
said. “So, two degrees would be D, zero degrees would be a B, and then that was how we assigned the notes.”
Tempo, too, was an artistic, musical decision.
“The piece that Sophy and I were particularly proud of was one that was precipitation because we made the tempo relatively fast to mimic the pitterpatter of rain,” she said. “And it did. It just sounded like an etude for modern composition because it was these jumping notes when you have lots of rainfall and a baseline when you had no rainfall. So it’s a fun piece that definitely captures the phenomenon.”
The next step for the work is to have the data better define those arbitrary starting points and to add more data for a fuller composition.
“One of the big goals for the next phase of the project is maybe not orchestral, but chamber music, building our way up,” James said. “We’re trying to bring in more people to be involved, whether I add another scientist or data scientist to the group or Sophy tries to find a composer to collaborate with.”
The goal of the work, James said, is to create “a fun and interesting way to connect people to nature.”
“We’re going through a climate
crisis, and how do you get people to care at the end of the day?” James said. “Music is something that I would say everyone has an emotional connection to, so trying to foster or deepen that emotional connection to nature through music is, I think, an avenue that we can use for change.”
The music can be found on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Spotify. A full concert video from November is on Chung’s YouTube channel. James will be giving a public lecture about the harmony of nature at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 7 for the Coastal Perspectives Series at UConn Avery Point.