“You have to strike a balance between the accuracy of the data and the way we listen to, and appreciate, music,”
says Clive Mead, co-composer of Song of the Sea – the project that has turned nature’s fury into a sea shanty. “That’s been our guiding philosophy from day one – and it’ll be up to the public to judge if we’ve succeeded.”
For the past year, Clive and his fellow PhD researcher Dieter Hearle, have wrestled with the pitch and yaw of a project that has sought to interpret the complex story of climate change through the medium of music.
Both members of the world-renowned Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR), the pair originally conceived of the idea as a continuous piece of music that might interpret the data flowing from a marine monitoring station.
But with the global COP26 conference on the horizon, the project changed course, striking out in the direction of an artistic representation of a single dramatic event – albeit one that is emblematic of long-term climate change.
“We all saw the impact of climate-induced extreme weather when the winter storms hit us in 2014,” says Professor Eduardo Miranda, Head of the ICCMR, a world-renowned computer music composer, and PhD supervisor to both Clive and Dieter.
“It washed away our rail link to London and left many coastal communities having to mop up at best and rebuild at worst. Climate change is accelerating these dramatic natural events, and Sound of the Sea has become a medium for telling that story.”
Clive, who has more than 25 years of experience as an artist, composer and producer, became involved in the project while undertaking his PhD with the ICCMR.
A specialist in recreating vintage music styles, his research has been focused upon how the limitations of technology and instruments going back through the decades impacted upon the creative processes of music studios.
“Everything has to be musical,” Clive says. “Much of what has been done previously is very academic and difficult to listen to. And with this, if we wanted to engage the public in the climate and the sea, there was no point in doing it twisted, distorted and machine-like. That’s why I chose the sea shanties; people know them and have a deep connection with them.”
Clive selected seven tracks to work with, including Plymouth Town, Haul Away Joe, Leave Her Johnny – and for the winter storm project, Drunken Sailor, which he felt was the most recognisable and dramatic.
He worked with a professional singer to record multiple layers and harmonies for each song, and then wrote and choreographed the music, mixing traditional and contemporary instruments sourced form online orchestral libraries.
Clive ensured each of the pieces had a consistent set of instruments so that they could smoothly segue into each other if required, and he also mixed in audio of marine life, such as pilot and sperm whales and dolphins.
The second half of the equation is Dieter, a former student at the University and musician, who has been researching interactive sonification – the art and science of turning data into sound and music.
“It’s a way to make data much more accessible to people,” he says. “You can pretty much use it for any data stream. Initially we looked at meteorological data from the University’s weather sensors. But for Song of the Sea, a renowned researcher from the Marine Institute provided us with the data from the Southwest Regional Coastal Monitoring Programme, which consisted of wind speed, air pressure, temperature and wave height – running up to nine of ten decimal points!”
Using a programme called Max/MSP, Dieter could feed in the figures, which had been recorded at 30-minute intervals, beginning at midnight on 4 February 2014 and ending 48 hours later.
The numbers tell their own story:
- Wind speed strengthening from six to 17 metres per second
- air pressure falling from 993 to 969 bar; and
- wave heights rising from 2.1m to more than 5m
All hitting peak ‘performance’ in the early hours of the 5th, before quietening down during the course of the afternoon.
From that process, Dieter was able to extract MIDI note and controller data that could be read by Apple’s Mainstage music software – and used to alter the playback of Clive’s recordings. What then followed was a long process of adjustment and iteration as the pair tweaked the scales to find the right balance between responsiveness and musicality.
“It took weeks and weeks to get right,” says Dieter. “If you have sections where the data does not change, how do you make that interesting? The temperature, for example, might not alter up or down for a long time, so the temptation is to make that more sensitive – but you have to keep it within limits.”
Through experimentation, they discovered that certain weather and wave parameters were better suited to altering specific characteristics of the music:
- Wave heights were aligned to an echo effect on the words, distorting them as they grew more powerful.
- Wind speed was assigned to tempo, speeding up the piece as it intensified
- Pressure was aligned with pitch, so that as the pressure dropped in the middle of the storm, the vocals deepen and grow more slurred and ominous.
- Temperature was assigned to a distortion effect on the drum, causing it to ‘crunch’ as the weather grew colder.
As the project progressed, it became clear that any ‘live installation’ that might require the use of all seven recorded songs would be paused in favour of a COP26-inspired proof of concept.
So, Clive finalised a three-and-a-half-minute version of Drunken Sailor, condensing the 48 hours preceding, during and after the storm.
The result is a dizzying, disorientating experience, albeit rooted in the recognisable, lyrical traditions of sea shanties and maritime music. And as the piece returns to its recognisable rhythm in the final minute, with the storm fading away, so the hope is that the listener – the public – will reflect upon the journey it has taken them on.
“Music is a great vehicle to communicate the full spectrum of human experience,” adds Eduardo, who has worked on projects as broad yet impactful as helping people with locked in syndrome to make music and using sonification to help people better understand the mechanics of their breathing.
“So why not let it speak for our planet and its environment?! And if we do not listen, then we will only have ourselves to blame for what follows.”
Song of the Sea
What happens with nature remixes music?
This rendition of What shall we do with the drunken sailor? has been remixed using data from a severe storm that wreaked havoc across the south coast of England.
Watch the video to experience the Song of the Sea
The COP26 summit, held in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 12 November 2021, brought parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on climate change.
The University of Plymouth is proud to be a part of the COP26 Universities Network whose mission it is to ensure that the UK academic sector plays its role in delivering a successful COP26, in order to deliver a zero-carbon, resilient world.