© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Science and song combine to make music from Long Island coastal climate data

Hea Youn Chung “Sophy” performs excerpts of Harmony of Nature II, Waves.
Sabrina Garone/WSHU
Hea Youn Chung “Sophy” performs excerpts of Harmony of Nature II, Waves.

Last year, a marine scientist, a pianist and a computer scientist came together to create music out of climate data collected on the Long Island Sound and beyond, including Japan. The album Harmony of Nature, II debuted in performances in Connecticut and New York in March.

Molly James, a marine sciences doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut, South Korean pianist Hea Youn Chung, who goes by "Sophy," and Max Lu, who's studying at Columbia and Juilliard in composition and computer science, joined WSHU's Eda Uzunlar and Sunday Baroque host Suzanne Bona to discuss the process of creating their most recent album.

EU: The music in this album is one of a kind, and so is the team that made it. They're an incredibly interesting trio, and talked with us about collaboration. Suzanne, with your musical expertise, can you say more about the challenges and benefits that could come with that collaboration?

SB: Well, if you think about how you would translate data into music, and then illustrate that as a performer, I mean, those are the obvious challenges. Each of these three people had to venture into new territory. They had to tiptoe into each other's worlds, in a sense — the musicians having to learn a little bit of the science and how the data is represented. And then Molly, who was also an avid amateur musician, tiptoed into that world of illustrating the data that she had collected into musical notes. What was essential for this was curiosity. And Sophy, the pianist, really illustrated that.

SOPHY: This whole product began from the curiosity. Like, where the wind happens, like you can feel the breeze. And the data shows the bullet points or the numbers. And can we actually translate that into music?

From left: Hea Youn Chung “Sophy” and Molly James.
Judy Benson / Connecticut Sea Grant
From left: Hea Youn Chung “Sophy” and Molly James.

EU: So then, that brings me to the technical side of putting these pieces of music together, because that was a really big undertaking. So we want to talk about how that happened. When we were with Sophy, she showed us this graph, right, of temperature data that went up and down as day and night came and went.

SOPHY: It looked like a music score for me. I don't know, it may sound weird, but there is a pitch difference. I was thinking this could possibly be translated into music.

EU: So then both the oceanographer and the composer worked together to make that happen. Let's talk a little bit more about that process.

SB: Well, again, a lot of that work really began with Molly, the scientist, and Max, the composer. Now, Max is a scientist. He's a computer scientist. But he's not an oceanographer. He's not a scientist in the sense that Molly is. And so they had to bridge the gap between their worlds, they had to merge this data. We talked about temperature earlier. But also, they used waves, they used water level data, they used different shores. They sampled from the Long Island Sound, and they converted that data into some characteristics of musical notes like pitch. Sophy talked about notes going up and down, and the data going up and down. For people who don't read music, that's what it looks like on a score, the notes literally, on the page, go up and they go down, just like data would in a table.

This kind of coding, is actually not completely new, at least translating something extra-musical into musical notes is not brand new. This is something even people like Johann Sebastian Bach did. Translating messages, letters, like his own name, the letters B, A, C, and H — which would be the notes B, A, C and B natural — into musical notes.

So there is a history for this. There is precedent for this. These three collaborators started off with the expectation that the music would be inspired by the data sort of more broadly. But by the time it evolved, they ended up with a much more literal representation of the data in the actual notes. Now, Molly talked about being so passionate about translating science into music, which is really important to her. As I mentioned earlier, she is an avid amateur musician herself. And so this is something that fuses two of her passions and her field of expertise, translating the science into something understandable.

JAMES: If you're doing your research in a vacuum, in my opinion, what's the point? If you don't communicate your findings, if you don't tell people what you're doing? It's pretty fruitless.

EU: And then I want to get to what the team said their hopes were for this album's impact. It's about water and wind data off some vastly different coasts, but every coast is being affected by climate change, and coasts often get affected by extreme climate events. Now, one piece in the album, called “Honshu East,” specifically uses data from the devastating earthquake and the following tsunami that took place in Japan in 2011. Here's Molly, the scientist again. She said music is an accessible way of sharing what happened in that event specifically and other events like it, because scientific data can be really hard to understand for a lot of people who aren't scientists.

From left: WSHU's Eda Uzunlar, Hea Youn Chung “Sophy,” and Molly James at WSHU's studios.
From left: WSHU's Eda Uzunlar, Hea Youn Chung “Sophy,” and Molly James at WSHU's studios.

JAMES: It's, I think, more approachable also than just these hundred-year data sets for sea level rise. You're like, ‘Oh, okay, whatever. I can't experience that in my lifetime. But I know what an earthquake is, I know what a tsunami is.’ So I think linking them is another way to better communicate the science, in all honesty.

EU: The whole team said that making music out of climate data can be a good way to show climate change in general. Sophy, the pianist, told us that that was the point of the project to her: to connect to other people through nature, and that nature is changing.

SB: This music really imparts the discomfort of climate change, the discomfort and fear and shock value of climate disasters. The composer, Max, talked about using silence to create tension. Silence in music has been a dramatic force. That is something that we are uncomfortable with, I think, as people. Especially in the context of something like a musical presentation, we're thinking, ‘Where are the notes?’ We think of music as sound, but music is the relationship between sound and silence. So Max really used that as a device to create tension. And then comes the music.

LU: Basically, it's like a weird sound, has a weird resonance, and each bell tone represents the first huge wave that buoys receive as they go across the Pacific.

SB: This project is such a powerful illustration of how music can command our emotions, and really make us feel something that data alone might not be able to do.

A recording of Harmony of Nature II, Waves performed at the National Opera Center can be found here.

Eda Uzunlar is WSHU's Poynter Fellow for Media and Journalism.
Suzanne Bona is the host and executive producer of Sunday Baroque, a nationally syndicated weekly radio show of Baroque and early music which she originated on WSHU in 1987.