Ocean ARTic
Ocean ARTic Commission



A recording of commissioned work will be released on October 29th to co-incide with COP26 in Glasgow, and live performances with Michael Begg and the Black Glass Ensemble.

The confirmed performances are:

Exclusive Preview: InSpace, Edinburgh. November 5th 2021

Premiere: The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, January 15th, 2022

The recording will be available on digital platforms from October 29th 2021

In July 2021, subsequent to a successful residency, Michael was commissioned to produce a full work for performance and recording.

LIGHT WATER IS BLACK WATER will arrange the material developed in the Ocean ARTic residency into compositions to be performed by the Black Glass ensemble later in the year.

This activity links the commission to Michael's residency at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, where his LIMINAL programme uncovers new musical approaches in the margins of contemporary classical and experimental music.

Ocean ARTic Residency

In June 2021, Michael began a residency as a sound artist within the Ocean ARTic partnership. He is working with a team of scientists based at AWI, Germany, aloingside scientists affiliated with MASTS, and Blue-Action EU.

Ocean ARTic is a new partnership that aims to bring creatives and marine climate scientists together to explore the impact of climate change in the Arctic and Scotland through climate data.

Michael is one of two artists currently in residency on the project. The other is environmental artist, Eve Mosher (

Throughout the residency, Michael maintains a development journal to offer an insight into how he tackled the challenges of creating musical compositions from the huge amount of data available. You can find the journal entries at the bottom of this page.

Information about the project from MASTS:

This new partnership, funded by Creative Scotland and led by MASTS, has been established in a pivotal year for climate change negotiations at CoP26, and the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

The Ocean ARTic project will run until March 2022, with the following key components:

1st April 2021: An online workshop to provide a platform for creatives and marine climate scientists to discuss their work.

May and June 2021: Residencies for two creatives, to be paired with scientists to explore data and science, co-creating an approach to a response or expression of stories of climate change in the marine environment. Ideally, we are seeking a mix of visual and sound art.

July and August 2021: Commissioning of works, ideally flowing from the residencies.

September 2021 to March 2022: Exhibiting and public sharing of the works and the creative process, at venues and online before and during CoP26.

March 2022: A legacy workshop to consider the formation of a long-term network of collaborators across the marine science and creative communities of Scotland.

OceanARTic will bring artists and marine scientists together to look in depth at how climate change is affecting the Arctic and, in turn, Scotland.

ocean ARTic Journal (latest posts)
March 10, 2022The date for the re-scheduled premiere of LIGHT WATER IS BLACK WATER has been announced. The event will now happen on Saturday, June 4th at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh. Tickets are now on sale and can be purchased here: LIGHT WATER IS BLACK WATER was a commission from the Ocean ARTic Partnership comprising Creative Informatics, People Ocean Planet, MASTs, and Blue Action EU. With collaborators based at the University of Edinburgh and the Alfred Wegener Institut in Germany, new compositions were derived from climate model data showing explicitly how a reduction in Arctic Sea Ice could have catastrophic impact on the climate at lower latitudes. [...]
August 13, 2021COP26 is getting closer. The recently published IPCC Report from the UN declared the climate situation as a “code red for humanity”. As I struggle with the technicalities of translating data into performable scores, I find myself overwhelmed by the sudden increase in administrative chores and organisational juggling tricks. Trying to secure 8 musicians availability, secure venue bookings when the Covid situation surrounding live performance remains unclear, arrange rehearsal space and, again, availability, and keep figures in my head to ensure that nobody involved - especially me - drops into debt. It takes its toll. The greater struggle, however, is not to allow the stark news reporting to reduce my own endeavours into meaningless little distractions. That aside, I rest assured that my work is true to the data. I have spoken often about how it has been challenging to get the output to speak to the existential drama of the data, when the figures seem to move so little. I have now come to pick this up as the greatest insight of the project. Our position here is tenuous, precarious, at best. The slightest shift in the variables is enough to throw survival into doubt. 1.5 degree Celsius, a near imperceptible shift in temperature is, it seems, the golden figure which we must keep below. We already seem to be past the point of doing anything to prevent your oceans rising by 2 metres - roughly the height of a man.  A taller than average man feels the afternoon heat prickle just a little warmer on his skin. And our world enters into a period of chaotic closedown. Not THE world. The rhythms, harmonic relationships and interleaving of systems will continue. It is only our arrogance, and perhaps, still, naiveté, that insists on us talking about the end of the world, the threat to the planet.  The music now reaching resolution does not reveal any great sweeps of sound to suggest turmoil, or dramatic upset. It is a music of texture, a music of weight moving steadily around interrelated systems. A steady, viscous presence which I have simply found the means to amplify and focus into our hearing range. It speaks, I hope, to something that we must understand that we cannot really impress our will upon. We can relate, are related to it, but… It comes down to we need it more than it needs us. [...]
August 9, 2021Technically, I have been immersed in the process of aligning the data layers, and setting up a timing mechanism through which I can export scores for the individual feeds relating to temperature, air pressure, precipitation, evaporation, and ice cover and thickness. In order to get a reasonable representation that affords some musical movement, I had to set the export tempo to 240 bpm. The scores then presented challenges of their own at such a fast tempo. Once out of Max and into Logic, I separated the audio streams from the MIDI data, re-set the tempo to 60bpm, then edited the scores, note by note, to present a playable composition that could accommodate both the data and the audio output from the sine wave arrays. To encourage further movement and articulation, I used Lukrecia’s data recording the distance between control and reduced ice variables to set the condition whereby the bars, in one particular work, are presented as semi breves, triplets or as arpeggios. Aisling, the violinist from Black Glass, was quick to tell me that this might be a nightmare to play - so once again I’ll go in, note by note, and attempt to tease it into a playable state. These technicalities aside, and the weaknesses they expose in my limited abilities both as a programmer and as a composer, I am very happy with the overall sound and shape of the work that is emerging. I think it will be a good record. [...]
July 29, 2021I have been focusing on the data for late December, and into January of the model year. We previously identified that there was a curious impact on the air pressure patterns at lower latitudes resulting from reduced ice in the Arctic. Visually, it looks dramatically unstable, with the model year casting wild inversions against what all the control data suggests should be happening at that time in Northern Europe. This inversion and seemingly unstable air pressure was observed to alter cyclonic flows, and push the storm track further south. This alteration to the storm track is broadly understood to be a major trigger for the extreme swings of weather conditions in the summer months. In 2021, we have seen both searing heatwaves and fatal flooding episodes across Europe. It is a curious sensation to sit with the data on the screen in graph form whilst looking at online news footage of flooded cities, interspersed with the emergence of ‘heat risk’ alerts, whilst locations as diverse as Canada and the Middle East register the first instances of urban heat episodes that are too extreme to sustain life. I am looking at the cause and I am looking at the consequence, and it is beyond comprehension that the situation should continue with only the subtlest suggestions of changes to our collective behaviour. But then there was the further revelation resulting from my musical sketching. I envisaged a short work around this data for two string players and electronics. One player would play the melodic line from the control data, whilst the other played the resulting air pressure values resulting from the reduction in ice. I envisaged this second melodic line to careen up and down the scale, ever further out of harmonic alignment with the control data. But no. Regardless of how I calibrate the scaling to encourage more movement across 2, 3 even 4 octaves, the overall arrangement remains, somehow, balanced, in harmony, self contained. Then it occurred to me. Our survival is sustainable only within a tiny range of possible variables on this planet. If the balance is disturbed by only a small number of degrees across a reasonable period of time, we die. It is that simple. And, now, it is that clear. The harmony of the planet, as we can come to represent it within our system, remains true, sweet and clear. Our passing, ultimately, will mean little, and a gentle adjustment, naturally occurring here or there, subsequent to our extinction, will resolve into a new balance, barely discernible from the old one. We mean this little. We exist in the thinnest seam of matter. Yet this fragility is the one thing we never praise, worship, fear, or strive to safeguard above all other things. So, despite my best intention to present this air pressure anomaly as something nearing hysteria, it will now present as a patient, harmonically sweet passage. A high voice. A low voice. A swapping of the highs and lows between players. The message remains either hidden, or deliberately unheard. [...]
July 1, 2021The work undertaking in the residency was warmly received and so evolved into a commission for a completed work for performance and recording. The working title of LIGHT WATER IS BLACK WATER has been adopted, and the project now proceeds under that name. The software now performs another purpose. In the residency, the software was where all of the elements came together and were calibrated to function as an ensemble work. With the commission the focus turns away from the processing of data to the requirements of both recording and performing the work. It almost feels like I am dismantling the work already completed as I dig down to uncover and recalibrate individual elements with a view to scoring playable parts from the various narratives playing out in the data model. I’ve plugged the bach library into the Max software. This has thrown me right back to nursery school. Progress is slow, frustrating and will remain completely unintuitive until that magic moment when the sheer amount of time and repetition that goes into trying to achieve even the most simple tasks works up its own muscle memory until it - the unintuitive - becomes entirely intuitive. For the past few days, however, I remain lost in a pre-school sand pit of a completely unfamiliar vocabulary - cents - onsets - far too much mathematical calculation. Time is compromised by having to start addressing the admin required who co-ordinating a group. I’ve been checking on who is available when in September and October for rehearsals, checking where we might rehearse, and wondering where I am going to find the time to take the data scores and arrange them in such a way as to prove interesting for the seven players to play, and interesting for anyone else to listen to. The focus has certainly changed from the data, and the sensitive subject matter, to the meat and gristle of getting an eight strong ensemble together in the one place at the one time, with a van full of electronic equipment and cables in order to make a noise. A noise which I will have crafted, considered and fretted over. A noise which I can just about hear in my head. Any musician will tell you just how far from the noise in the head is from the noise in the ear! Meanwhile, the partnership is under pressure to realise a performance before the end of November. Partly, I imagine to ensure some kind of alignment with the COP26 conference, and partly on account of agreed project timelines. The queen’s Hall would prefer that we took a performance slot in January 2022 as there would only be Monday slots potentially available in November. I don’t know enough about events to know whether November Mondays are going to be quieter than January Saturdays. Both seem to have a pretty poor chance of pulling folk from their homes. I take swims in the bay in the warm evenings, and drink a beer on the sand as the last few day trippers make their way back to their cars. The day seems to sigh, and an empty peace prevails. I can almost make myself believe that I am in control. [...]
June 22, 2021There is an interesting consequence of my poor programming that seems to now be making a positive contribution to the work. There are various areas in the software where the processing is lagging. There is now a variation in when events and transitions occur. In particular, the sine wave arrays seem to ramp up and down in the middle of bars rather than on the start of a bar where the data feed moves to the next selection. This causes a lot of nice sounding movement, and helps soften the hard and fast tempo that whilst unavoidable does not serve the content well. This is one positive aspect to what is otherwise an anxious period, as I have somewhat lost my way in the virtual tangle of cables and objects and plug ins from which the software ‘engine’ is constructed. It is making sound, and the sound is, for the most part appealing, and seems to represent the subject matter effectively enough. But I am losing track of just how it is doing it. The project has taken weeks, months really to bring to this point. This ongoing, unrelenting engagement means that my skill in programming and handling the authoring platform has improved significantly. Now that I am entering into a period of refinement and revision I come face to face with just how bad some of the earlier coding is. some of it is so opaque that I still cannot comprehend how it is managing to do what it is doing. But with so much work requiring attention in the run up to a performance I can’t afford to take the time out to reprogram the weaker code. This seems to have been the central dilemma of much of my life - whether to stop and consolidate, organise, improve - or to press on and out further into the wilderness on a wing and a prayer that the whole edifice isn’t crumbling in my wake. Crumbling with the sound of a glacier calving! [...]
June 19, 2021I spent some time looking at the two datasets, the control year, and the RED model where sea ice was reduced by 80% leading to several months where the Arctic would have no ice cover whatsoever. I was considering how best to represent the areas where the model data was behaving most radically, and for clues as to how I could present these mutations musically. It came as a surprise - though on reflection, of course, it should not have - to observe that the variations were, on paper, very small. The difference between maximum precipitation figures was the difference between 3.12 and 2.28 - the latter figure presenting a decline in precipitation. Similarly, the surface temperature in the model was 1K higher, from 275.8 in the control year to 276.8 in the RED. Climatically speaking these changes are significant - but there is not a lot of movement in the core music system to represent this. I discussed this with Lukrecia later in the day, whilst we both awaited out respective country’s games in the Euros. (We both drew. Croatia against the Czechs, and Scotland against England. I think our (Scoltand’s) draw was slightly more significant - but it will be curious to see what happens to our spirit of collaboration when our teams meet each other on Tuesday) She first arrived me that these changes may look numerically small, but that they were most definitely significant. She also instructed me on how these were daily average readings for the whole of the Arctic, and that those averages are constructed with 6 hourly readings across a grid of reference points. Within that system there would be much more clear, sharp and defined readings. She grew a little concerned that our system of creating daily averages for the region was having the effect of smoothing out the information and making it too soft focus to be impactful. She also reminded me that within these min / max ranges we had to also consider that the levels were different across periods of time - not just the min / max points. A sustained variance in the readings contains a lot of climatic impact. We arrived at a number of possible solutions to address this. We considered switching the control of amplitude to the daily difference between the control and the RED reading - using increased volume to alert the ear to where the biggest (loudest) differences were. This could work, but it would be at the expense of amplitude showing where readings were generally low or high. I think we’ll progress by taking a separate data stream showing the difference, as a percentage, perhaps? - between the control and the RED, and I will use that figure to control an effect, perhaps reverb or echo, or some kind of modulating filter. The greater the discrepancy between control and RED - the more obvious and active the effect would be. This is exciting because it allows a new dimension to come in to play, rather than a repurposing of an existing function. We also decided to create some new data exports which focus on particular individually notable variations. These will be smaller sketches where I run the control data and the RED data in parallel, with the two sounds running together to show how far apart from each other they become at certain points in the year, depending on whether or not there is ice coverage in the Arctic. We will be focussing on activity in northern Europe to specifically speak to the project directive to surface local impact. [...]
June 18, 2021I am thinking ahead to what is required to ensure that the work evolves from a residency proposal to a full commission. Demonstrating audio over web conferencing software is never satisfactory, and often a complete nightmare. The software is always optimised for the spoken voice. The software tends to focus audio as heard on laptop speakers rather than grabbed directly from the sound card.  this is why I favour making a self contained demonstration which can then be shared as a media file, or a link to a media file. One always has to hope for the best that whoever is listening to it is wearing headphones or has their machine hooked up to a decent sound system. Computer speakers only give you about half of the overall signal - and the bottom end of the frequency range is entirely absent. With all this in mind I have uploaded the first in what will likely be a series of brief Youtube clips. I am using OBS to screen grab the software in use. [...]
June 18, 2021I am looking at a moment in December. In the model this is a moment in the year when the ice concentration is recovering from approximately three months of zero cover. Ice concentration on December 17th is showing itself to be just over 51%. However, now that I have built tools into the GUI to make the information offer visual as well as audio cues  I can see that the thickness of the ice is still negligible. A diaphanous, vulnerable reading of 0.35. Evaporation levels seem - to my untrained eye - high, as does the surface temperature of the water, -13 degrees celsius which is just under half the range for the year. One would have thought that the Arctic sea in December would be somewhat lower. I continue to build features onto the engine using the existing samples and sine waves, but there is a whole new dimension being presented now that I have linked the scaling of the data to the amplitude of each channel. Here, when there is no surface ice, or there is ice, but of negligible thickness, or precipitation and evaporation levels drop then so too do the amplitude for those channels. This means that rather than have tonality and dis/harmony present the changes, there is much to be said by features and sounds dropping out of the composition altogether. At certain points in the year there may be near silence. This dimension of sound levels rising and falling may acquire a further dimension if Finlo’s colleague, to whom he introduced me this morning, can send through some biomass details regarding the spring bloom that I can map to the granular MC objects. [...]
June 15, 2021A couple of days ago, two new data dumps appeared in the shared Dropbox folder, along with a textile explaining what was there. This is the data that Lukrecia has been wrestling to get downloaded from the server, and which I have been eagerly anticipating. This is the coupled model data for the Arctic research project around which the work is to be formed. We are beginning by taking a core sample of information. I received crystal clear instructions… The data is a result of the ensemble coupled model simulations for the period of one year (starting 1st of June) conducted by the global model AWI-CM (Stulic 2015, Semmler et al. 2016). It comprises of daily average values for the chosen climate variables over the Arctic Circle (AC, north of 66N) from the control ensemble (AWICM_CTRL.txt) and the ensemble with reduced sea-ice thickness (AWICM_RED.txt). Columns: 1=ice, daily average sea-ice concentration (%)  2= hice, daily average sea-ice thickness (m) 3= tair, average surface temperature (K) 4= mslp, sea level pressure (Pa) 5= prec, precipitation (kgm2/day) 6=evap, evaporation (kgm2/day) For each column : 1st value= min* 2nd values= max* 3th value= June 1st ...continutation of the daily values over a year.... 367th value = May 31st *note that the range (for the same varaible) differs between the CTRL and RED. For the common range for a variable, take the smaller min and the larger max between the experiments.   To these columns I added a date identifier to make it easier for us to bounce back and forward through the data to gain a clearer indication of changes. Because of the prior work done on assembling the sound engine utilising the Antarctic data it only took a couple of hours to swap out the old data, import the new (beginning with the control year) and update the scale values to keep the new data within audible range. The back end of the program is now so cluttered and confusing that I am going to have to put time aside to clean it up and organise the patch cables. In the meantime I have worked more on a GUI and added a couple of features to make it more usable for sharing and discussing the processing and the sounds of the shifting currents of data. I added some sliders to each data feed with an indicator as to where in the min - max range the current value sits. I also imported an mc granular build from yesterday’s tutorials and, whilst waiting fro info from Finlo, I mapped it to the precipitation data, and used a field recording of snowmelt water as a source for the grains. The effect is encouraging, though listening to hour after hour of water samples is making me pee much more often. It seems to be a truism about water recordings that you have to get something really special to NOT remind you of bathrooms, toilet bowls and bladder functions.  With the sounds now coming out of the engine I am faced with a new series of questions and considerations. I am enjoying the sense of unity among all the feeds, the sense of ensemble is working well, and I do get a sense of weight and expanse, of scale - an overall force which accommodates these smaller movements. But how far to go in order to alert the listener to what is changing, what is losing stability, what is lost? By swapping the data source to the RED data set, which has Arctic ice removed for several weeks in the summer, and applying a different scale to the output - super Locrian - the listener is aware that the overall mood is slightly more anxious, for sake of a better word. The full movements of the ensemble are still there, for sure, but things do seem a little more uncertain. Is that just me making this analysis whilst in full control of the tempo and the key signature. I can edit the time easily and bounce back and forward in the dataset to hear these clear and sudden transitions. It is unlikely - unless someone steps forward with a web solution to enable listeners to manipulate the data themselves - that the transitions would be quick enough to be noticed. The old - and false - myth about boiling a frog comes to mind. Directly because of this, and in order to make the shifting forces more discernible, I have moved the tempo from a stately 60 up to a more frenetic 240. This, of course, makes the samplers work a lot harder, and I am aware of computer fan noise becoming a constant undertone to running the data. [...]
June 13, 2021I have taken a pause from the main program to consider options for incorporating the data that Finlo is preparing regards the seasonal growth of biomass and, potentially, the ‘amplitude’ changes to the regular rising and falling of feeding depths in the ocean. Granular synthesis is increasingly popular among Max developers, and has become somewhat of a cliche in computer music. However, in its basic capacity to process small fragments of sound and represent them individually, as grains, and the ability to have a great deal of flexibility as to the length and frequency/ occurrence of these grains it does suggest a good method of representing the swarming growth of biomass. and pay also suggest a method whereby we can bring in archival sound recordings. My main concern had been the burden that would be placed on the already stretched CPU cycles - but having gone through a couple of Federico Foderaro’s granular synthesis tutorials it seems that making use of the new mc functionality within Max 8 (essentially, internalising multichannel routing into the program logic) affords a lot of functionality with very little overhead. So, it seems this project will be my introduction to mc objects as well as granular processing.  [...]
June 10, 2021I had an excellent meeting with Lukrecia this afternoon. She has the data, and so was able to share with me what it is she sees when the data arrives. Arrays of figures representing 6 hourly readings from grids covering the whole surface of the planet. A bewildering amount of information, especially as the readings are mapped across 100 separate elements. She will take the six hourly readings from key foundation aspects; sea ice, air temperature, precipitation, salinity, surface temperature, and more, and average them out to a single daily reading. This will give us the core. Core relationships between primary data components in the coupled model. This is the parameters of a musical score I showed her how the Max environment consumes the data, and made sure to alert her to how so many parameters of a sound; its amplitude, its timbre, its duration, its resonant frequency range can all be dynamically affected by scaled data fed into the system. As hoped, this generated a degree of excitement in her, and through the screen I could see her mind start to spin as she sensed a new dimension in her understanding of her data collection. This is so much what I had hoped to see. She could not immediately articulate her thoughts. It’s all a bit new, but as it will just take me a few short hours to load in the first data set, and she has indicated that her schedule eases up somewhat over the next week or so, I forecast some really interesting discussions about how, musically, to represent the impact of one data stream on another. One thing that she has alerted me to is that whereas the Antarctic data is crowded and swoops with dramatic changes of values in the data points, the Arctic material will be much more subtle. This initially gave me pause for concern as my first reaction was to assume that there would be no drama, no immediately perceptible sense of increasing damage, chaos, entropy. But on further reflection, I must keep true to the data in some sense, and if the message is subtle, then I have to work with that. Those are the terms laid out by the readings. [...]
June 8, 2021World Ocean Day, apparently. Also, my birthday, apparently.I had a long, boozy lunch with Susan, featuring locally sourced, though bloody expensive, sustainable seafood. No idea if the wine was sustainable, but there was a lot of it, and it sustained me.Not perhaps the best preparation for my late arrival into an Innovation showcase. Every time I attend or contribute to one of these virtual meetings its on a new platform, with various mute buttons, and comment flashes spinning out of every corner. Its impossible to tell how many people are out there, or what they were asking. I was grateful to Inge for hosting the session. We spoke of the subjective nature of data, and questioned what pure objectivity might look like, and why it would be in any way attractive or useful. This, to me, seemed quite revolutionary. But later reflection forced me to realise is that my position is informed by my need to make a point, not to observe and record information. I recalled that subjective interpretation of data, the questioning of what appeared to be an unassailable truth is probably one of the key factors in enabling our political system to descend into the crepuscular cess pit that it has become. Maybe there should be nothing consensual at all about truth. Maybe the consensual is a concession too far and we have to accept that truth is solid, firm, sure. Something we have to accept. We also touched on the tactile weight and substance of the material manifesting in this digital realm of bytes and flickering screens. The anticipated data from AWI is stored on cassettes, and has to be manhandled into machines, then spouted out into the network where it will take Lukrecia - after clearing her laptop of other data - approximately 36 hours to download. The data we require is a fraction of the whole, but the whole still needs to be in place to be queried and processed into a sub set. We remain at the mercy of the integrity of the network. Which makes it all the more prescient that today a CDN powered by Fastly had a critical error and brought down a significant portion of all web traffic - including, of course, our data transfer. And so it begins again in the morning. In the evening, we walked down to the shore - low evening tide, sun low in the east, in a clear band between low cloud and the land - and jumped in to the sea, squealing and yelping. The sea, the sea. My relationship with this force is altering as a direct result of this work. I feel it deep inside, almost hidden, still nameless. But it is less other, less elsewhere. [...]
June 7, 2021Yesterday evening, Susan and I walked down for an evening swim and a beer. I started talking about my concerns, the issues that required addressing. As is usually the case, the act of talking about it changed the perspective and opened possibilities and proposals to follow up on. First off, given that I am maxing out the CPU with around 7 elements it seems highly unlikely that I’ll be able to develop an engine that will simultaneously run all 100 elements in the coupled model. This suggests sub groups, smaller narratives within the overall dataset that illustrate key points. Or, a series of different engines for different groups of elements. This suggests a huge amount of work. Lukrecia will have to advise on key findings, and locate illustrations of those findings in the overall dataset. It seems clear, now, that there are three different modes of presentation for the finished commission; installation, performance, recording. In installation will be least satisfactory, I think, because there is no live incoming data to add dynamism and surprise. It would need to simply be a captured sub set of model data played on a loop in a space with enough visual information to give the experience some kind of context and resonance. A recording sits well with the idea of having to locate, isolate and work with highlighted aspects of the overall model. It would have the potential to reach a wider, larger audience. Similarly, a performance would have to isolate key areas, and develop the software output to sit well with live instrumentation. This will be the most interesting, will likely enable the release of further Liminal funding from Creative Scotland and will enable the ensemble to get back together with something concrete to work towards. It suggests, however, an incredible workload for me over the duration of the work. Two meetings today have proven helpful. The project team meeting, as hoped, seem happy with the proposal that this work receives some kind of performance at the Queen’s Hall. A later exchange with QH suggests that they are very much behind the idea but the caveat, as ever, remains that their opening date post-lockdown looks like it may shift back again. That is something that is out of every individuals hands. I raised the idea of trying to seek out folk in the university who would gain something from coming on board in some capacity. The key thing for me at this point is to avoid becoming any further cluttered in administration and definition of terms or re-negotiating outputs. I need to keep my head down and work purely on the sound. I am approaching that point where my head goes under the surface and I engage with the work on the inside. One day I will unpack that and describe it more clearly, but for the moment… ~ So, in defining how folk may add to the party (and as a draft text for Inge, the partnership contact at Creative Informatics) Can you take a Max Patch and reconfigure it to work in an installation context (rewiring the patch into a computer that can be housed with the installation / converting stereo to multichannel / building in mechanisms to ensure memory is freed up, and system resources remain stable)Are you a Max MSP super genius who could take a considerable patch and significantly reduce its CPU consumption?Are you interested in creating data responsive visualisations to provide a new dimension to a piece of audio art?Are you a PhD musician who would be curious to work with other classical musicians in exploring new performatve processes and techniques with the Black Glass Ensemble, utilising data, semi improvised responsive playing, pushing the boundaries of timbre and articulation? ~ A second meeting, this time with Finlo Cottier at MASTS, explored the potential - hopefully soon to be realised, of integrating his biology observational research into the overall scheme to provide an organic sense of nutrients growing and expanding to the point in May - the Spring bloom - where upon there is a collision with the appearance of new ‘spring bloom’ I am considering whether granular synthesis might provide away of bringing in a sense of frothing growth amassing in density - that suddenly in the springtime collapses in a mirror reaction of the sudden appearance of new zooplankton. We spoke a lot of seasonal rhythms, and the increases in ‘amplitude’ as biomass rises and falls in relation to the surface, and in relation to how much surface ice is present, how strong the sun - or THE MOON - is, and where the food source is at any given time. Another curious observation at this point is the way that he - as a biologist - refers to the water being lighter because there is more sunlight getting through to it, whereas the AWI team consider this to be dark water. Their perspective is to look down on it from above, and the lack of ice causes it to be known as dark water. For the biologist looking hip from the depths, of course, the lack of shading ice cover makes the water much lighter. I think it will add a fascinating new dimension to introduce biological material - increasing the complexity, the inter-relationships, the complexity of rhythms impacting and driving every aspect of the territory. In order to keep the team appraised of the palette of sounds being explored, I’ve made the most recent iteration of the instrument ensemble available to listen to on Soundcloud, using the Antarctic polynya data: This would be a good point to summarise the construct of the program to this point… A global tempo is set. The data file is split into its columns; presently this covers ice area, ice volume, ice thickness, air temperature, wind, salt flux, and salinity of the ocean floor. When the new data arrives from AWI the columns will change, and there will be many more - but the scaling and calibration will remain. The transition, therefore, should be painless and enable us to work together on critical consideration of how best to calibrate and articulate the key events in the narrative. The data values are scaled to musically audible values - either MIDI or frequency values. All the values are then filtered to ensure that they remain within a pre-defined key signature/scale, thereby removing the likelihood of discord and atonality from the ensemble. With the exception of wind and ice volume each column is fed to its own array of 6 sinusoidal oscillators, independently pitched in direct relation to the root, and with each element of that array changing amplitude independently. This constitutes a full palette of 30 oscillators providing an ever shifting fluid foundation of sound. In addition, Each element is simultaneously fed to an instance of a VST instrument (at present the Massive X synthesiser, or the Kontakt sampler) These instruments are loaded, as recorded above, with a well balanced series of relevant instruments. Because the system itself is fastened to a global sound clock I am free to set up different tempo values for individual tracks - quarter notes, quarter note triplets, etc. What I am trying to achieve at this early point is to create a multitude of possible points of entry for other data streams to come in and directly affect the way that the core set of instruments plays, sounds, performs, falls out of tune, changes in amplitude, etc. I am trying to create a sound ecosystem to reflect the multiple rhythmic elements and interactions of the territory. Once the ecosystem is secure, the system will be edited to enable individual data streams to be output as a readable musical score. This is the crossover point where data, technology and acoustic playing begin to gather in a liminal territory. This is where the alchemy begins to suggest itself. [...]
June 4, 2021I had to spend a bit of time yesterday putting together a script for the Innovation Showcase timetabled for Tuesday. Once I had a script, I then had to set about sourcing some interesting visuals to accompany the script, and then combine the script, the visuals and some demo samples in order to make a presentation introducing the project. Given that so much of the time so far has been spent in courting other scientists and preparing material for showcasing the material, it is a little frustrating not to be able to just burrow down into the work. Frustrating also that Lukrecia is still having trouble accessing the data from the AWI server. Hopefully, this will be addressed in the next day or so, Despite these frustrations I do feel that I made a breakthrough yesterday - and it is partly on account of having to write that script for the showcase. In the presentation I alluded to a problem that I had only just begun to mentally acknowledge. With the ever growing complexity of the software, and its near complete dependance on the data, the sounds coming out from it, whilst satisfyingly complex, were not sounding like anything I would be happy to put my name to as a composer. This put a hook in my lip and so I spent much of the remaining time yesterday applying myself to the challenge of making the data sound like me, my work, my style, my form, without disturbing the data itself. I developed an interface that would allow me to mute channels and adjust amplitude of each stream independently. Making the screen much less cluttered allowed me to focus more on the sounds than the architecture. It transpires that dropping the tempo and replacing some of the instruments has made a huge difference. I have quite accidentally fallen upon an arrangement of virtual instruments that both compliment that sine weave harmonics. and reflect the nature of the project. Glass armonica, the processed nordic treatments of Olafur Arnald’s Spitfire Library, Imogen Heap’s Waterphone from her Sonic Couture Box of Tricks library. Spitfire’s Tundra strings. They all sit well against one another, and whilst I still have to deal with the obvious looping in the bar structure, I still consider this to be a major step forward. The next thing requiring attention is how to introduce imbalance and change into the system. Technically, it looks onerous to imagine having to push atonal content into the programming supporting the scales in the current model. So, I think it has to be a combination of filters, and perhaps some field material stored in audio buffers, along with some movement algorithms triggering arrays of comb filters, or granular erosion… Oh, something like that. Something like that. [...]
June 1, 2021Lukrecia continues to have difficulty downloading the dataset from the AWI servers. She has informed IT and has learned that there was an ‘issue’ with the server, and that they hoped to get it repaired within a couple of days. So we wait. In the meantime, I continue to build a model based on the Antarctic data sample. Many of the issues to be addressed are the same, so I am not too perturbed about the delay in getting hold of the model data. Yesterday, I dismantled the metro based timing system to make the software run against global transport. This opens the potential to have multiple rhythmic elements working in sync which may be a means of being able to listen to the movements of a single element in the mix. I had been concerned about how to accommodate the sine wave drones which require a very slow tempo. I resolved this by dropping in a counter object and a sel object after an instance of metro. The counter runs through 8 bars, and the sel pushes out a bang every 8 bars. That more or less equates to the 30000ms timer I had running before linking it all up to global transport. Implementing global transport to enable multiple instances of tempo that can be linked The trouble now is that with quarter notes and triplets the rhythms already sound maddeningly dense and complex. Plus the CPU is taking a hammering so I have upped the I/O and signal vectors up to 2048 - despite having no idea what that actually means! I presume its increasing the buffer range. It certainly drops CPU down from 95% to about 45%. With CPU and rhythms becoming too dense, it does seem that a more useful approach would be to isolate parts of the model and calibrate them individually. But how will they sound when they come back together? Global transport allows multiple metros to run as slaves, which can trigger on quarter tones (4n) quarter note triplets (4nt). Using counter and sel I can refresh the drones on much longer cycles. Setting up global transport was worth the pain as it, theoretically, enables me to link the engine up to Logic and/or Live. This may help shift my sense of the work being suitable for an installation and bring it back into the territory of being the foundation of a performance or a recording. Finally, in this pretty productive spurt, I built up a standalone patch of midi values corresponding to 16 different scales. Using a combination of dict and colls I can now pull out a series of midi values which - again, theoretically - will give the option to constrain output within a key signature and modality. [...]
May 27, 2021Mail from Finlo Cottier at the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland this morning. He sends lots of images illustrating data for various rhythmical cycles relevant to the territory. Tidal fluctuations and the layers of polar and oceanic water, the ‘spring bloom’ of May and the preceding, rising ‘crecendo’ of nutrients in the water. Curious, actually, to see how random the presence of sea ice is in comparison to the other elements under observation. The "crescendo" of nutrients growing through the winter months, that suddenly collapse in May during the "Spring bloom" of biological material The impression I have, increasingly over time, is to view these illustrations as scores. When Finlo presents illustrations together - one showing ocean temperature, the next showing biological activity, then salinity - the interplay of salinity, biological activity and temperature - the sense is of an ensemble piece in which the colours and spikes only require to be rendered as notation. Data from an ocean glider moving south to north in the Barents Sea north of Norway. Figure (a) is temperature showing warmer waters in the surface and colder waters to the north (right hand side). At the same time in figure (b) the surface is fresher and the biological activity is concentrated in the surface Figure (c).  Most intriguing of all is my suddenly noticing that on the graphs, pressure is recorded in decibels. A call with Lukrecia confirms that in this context it can be read as an oceanic alternative to depth reading. Still worth keeping in mind as I increasingly feel that with so many streams of data running in parallel it is going to be difficult to see through the overall texture to hear particular points of interest in the stream. Having a mechanism within the data itself whereby the amplitude can be attenuated on individual tracks would be useful. Lukrecia confirms that the Arctic data is still being downloaded from AWI servers. The archive of the project has been backed up onto tape and, unfortunately, although we only require a small subset of the overall data the full project requires to be downloaded so that the relevant information can be extracted. I feel sorry for her having to go through what must be a mind numbingly frustrating process to get back at the data that we need. Hopefully, after the weekend, we’ll have some Arctic data in place and I can begin swapping out the Antarctic data for the streams we’re going to be working with. Then we can, all being well, become playful with our toys. I’ve suggested that we take some time on the Sunday to screen share our main software tools. Lukrecia can share with me how she queries and arranges data. I want to show her how the data sits in the context of a Max patch and how the data points are called, analysed and turned into representative sound. Whilst it can be complicated and frustrating to get the thing to work properly, it should be simple enough to explain the broad strokes in the process - enough to enable AWI to see whats going on and engage in the process of establishing voices, frequency ranges, filter parameters and so on. Critically, I want to as soon as possible develop another proof of concept model that uses sampled instruments and diatonic scale and harmonic structures as an alternative to the oscillators. [...]
May 25, 2021Whilst waiting for some data to arrive from Lukrecia I continue to work on the FESOM model from our ealirer sketches covering the Ronne polynya region in the southern Weddell Sea, Antarctica. I removed all the synth/MIDI mappings and regenerated the fields for polynya area, polynya ice volume, average ice thickness, average air temperature, average offshore wind, average salt input and average salinity form the bottom of the ocean as sinusoidal oscillators. To give richness and movement, each value is fed into its own array of oscillators which automatically reproduce harmonic series for each input frequency. For each of the seven data columns there is an array of six oscillators. Each oscillator has its own gain control which can be modulated to rise and fall according to a further scaled data input. This is what gives it, potentially, such an oceanic sense of movement. The results of the sketch show that there is a sense of ocean swell in the sound, which also, on occasion sounds like an Aeolian harp. When the values change sharply the effect, however, is more like a theremin. I’d feel happier if I could get the same range of movement and colour from manipulating noise rather than pure tones. However, creating filters for the noise is a lot more involved than simply pointing a frequency at an oscillator. Taking this approach - abstracted waveforms with no diatonic constraints of fixed pitching, harmony, etc - does give the sense of the work as an installation rather than a recording to be listened to in ones own home. The sounds somehow suggest themselves to a public place, the movement of others, the visual stimuli of material ideally related to the sounds. I’ve made contact with Finlo Cottier at SAMS, who tells me about lots of fascinating work he has down which could become quickly relevant to the work. He has images from robotic gliders that swam on continuous survey lines to gather the varying properties of the Arctic waters through space and time from polar night through to the height of summer. He alludes also to other data charting periodic activity - tides, ascent and descent of zooplankton, pulses of phytoplankton growth, seasonal decline and growth of nutrients. This all suggests some manner of finely tuned polyrhythmic representation of the environment - a kind of seasonal landscape in which the project is located. [...]
May 24, 2021First obstruction in the road. The data is arriving with figures containing up to 15 decimal points. Only now does it become clear that Max, the music software, handles only up to 6 places. The forums reveal conflicting info. Some say that double intensity floating point calculations can, with modifications to the system libraries, be undertaken, whilst others say it can only be done in Pure Data (the open source alternative to Max). Still others maintain that although the objects in the Max patch only show up to six places, the full figures are there - just unseen. Luckily (for me) Lukrecia says that it will be no great problem to change the format/units of the data where this becomes problematic - effectively multiplying everything by something like ten million. This, in itself, scratches the anxiety about how we maintain truthful connections between the data when there are so many units to contend with. This, however, is one of those issues/potential problems that I will only be able to address by wandering directly into the programming and facing it when it hits me. ~ I have made a first pass at modifying the core engine that was built for the Antarctic data, removing the synthesiser streams and replacing them all with undulating sine waves. It’s a rough fix just to get a feel for what might emerge. Midi notes have been transformed to their respective frequency values, with octaves, harmonic fifths and thirds all easing in and out on independent amplitude feeds. There is room for the rate of amplitude to be triggered by data, and I’ll play around a little more with locating the frequency ranges in a zone that seems both appropriate (high = ice, low = ocean floor) and try to keep the ranges out of each others way. Already, however, I can tell that this on its own will not be satisfying to listen to on its own - nor will it say enough about whats actually going on in the data. This is a little unfortunate because it is clear that pursuing this approach would create significantly less strain on the computer than employing multiple VST instances of synths and samplers. I remain undecided about what to do regards rhythm/tempo. [...]
May 23, 2021I met with Zdenka and did some work with her on the Antarctic model that she’s working up. We plugged placeholders for a step sequencer into one of the feeds, and co-opted my sinewave harmoniser to provide a softly undulating timbre-shifting drone for the ocean floor readings. VST synths were then mapped to polynya levels and salt flux. It strikes me that a lot of this structuring will be very similar to what is required when Lukrecia delivers the first set of Arctic data. But it has brought forward something that has been troubling me for a while; whether to make use of sinewave generators and work in a broadly chromatic manner, or whether to fix the output in a clear diatonic domain, with subsequent anomalies in the data being presented as material breaking out from being ‘in key’. The latter will doubtless be more musical but it contains the conceit that we are starting from a position that is, essentially, harmonious, and I remain doubtful as to whether that is an accurate representation of where we are. [...]
May 20, 2021After meeting online, I read Lukrecia’s paper, Seasonal Atmospheric Responses to Reduced Arctic Sea Ice in an Ensemble of Coupled Model Simulations, in the Journal of Climate. The meeting beforehand was helpful so that I knew what the end goal was whilst wading into the specific details of the model being described. What was novel about the piece of work was in its uniting atmospheric and ocean models, thereby introducing a shifting system of around 100 elements. By preloading the system with a much (80%) diminished level of sea ice coverage in the Arctic, the work revealed how this, single change held significant repercussions at lower latitudes. The range of elements and their interactions is daunting, though not quite overwhelming. I can see right at the outset that we have to find a way of creating sub groups, identifying lead-role elements. Because the model is based on a year, i know that I will have 365 daily readings for however many elements we can successfully port into the music software. I am relying on the fact that a musical base structure is already broadly suggested by the model. Groups of related elements can be assigned to an indicative musical ‘voice’. The various voices corresponding to atmospheric and oceanic elements will play in ensemble. Using the device of a cycle, already inferred by the marking of broad seasonal shifts in the data, we will be able to play through a year - a control year - in which none of the variables are altered to provoke changes. I had thought that this might be a pre-industrial year, but Lukrecia seems satisfied that the initial state model will suffice. Naturally, I am happy to trust her opinion. she is the scientist. But it does feel odd to be taking the control year to be a point where we are already deeply implicated in affecting change. My plan is to take this control year as the place to calibrate the voices. The seasonal changes will provoke stepped changes in the readings but I’ll seek to ensure that nothing descends into disharmony. My head is filling up with clouds - rather than clear ideas - of how to musically represent elements; cyclones, salinity, the voice of ice itself, evaporation, precipitation, shifts in current speeds, storm tracks being pushed south… How to avoid the chaos suggested by a complex system when to exist within that system only seldom appears to be stirred into chaos. [...]
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