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Instruments Of Change: A Weather-Playing Music Machine

Instruments Of Change: A Weather-Playing Music Machine

Without the tools to create, where would we be? Listening to the sound of one hand clapping, probably. In this column we’ll be looking at people who invent their own tools—be they musical, artistic, photographic—any sort of bespoke equipment from innovative builders of all disciplines and ages in a celebration of the fine art of invention. This week: Variable 4

Reading a description of this portable generative sound installation created by James Bulley and Daniel Jones, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some magical mystery machine out of a Victorian science fiction novel or book of folk tales for robots. It uses weather patterns as the basis for generating sounds that react to prevailing weather conditions—so the whims of the local atmosphere get harnessed in real-time, through some custom code, and turned into harmonic sounds, giving you an audio accompaniment to those foreboding clouds and high winds gathering ahead. It’s fascinating not just because it’s taking something unpredictable and turning it into music, but also because it creates a wonderful synthesis of technology and nature. The machine is out there battling with the elements, capturing the chaos and unbridled power of the weather and turning it into something almost soothing and graspable. While there’s no arguing that the idea itself is one of beauty, the mechanics and technology behind this robotic weather rod are just as incredible.

Recently Bulley and Jones presented the infrastructure underlying the piece at the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC), an international forum for showcasing new research findings in computers and music. The audience was incredibly excited about the potential of the framework to become a useful kit for algorithmic composition.

So we’re very pleased to present here a short documentary of the incredible installation (below) in its most recent outdoor excursion at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, England in May of this year. And also the new software library Bulley and Jones have been developing, released for the first time in an open source format called isobar. It contains the different compositional tools used in Variable 4 so others can play around with and build upon the code. We also conversed with them over email to get some more details on the project and the ideas behind it.

The Creators Project: Can you briefly explain what Variable 4 is and how it works?
James Bulley and Daniel Jones:
Variable 4 is a sound installation that senses weather conditions in real time and uses them to generate music. The piece is installed outdoors, and is reactive to virtually all the atmospheric conditions of its site. The audience can simultaneously feel the weather conditions and hear the sound generated over a spatialized sound system.

The British are known for their obsession with the weather. Was the UK’s temperamental climate an inspiration behind the piece?
The UK’s climate is a tacit influence in many ways—the changeability and chaotic nature of the weather in Britain has always been a source of discussion for the British populace and for us! The name ‘Variable 4’ actually comes from the shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, something that we both regularly listen to for its rhythmic, comforting feel.

Variable 4 at Snape Maltings with accompanying sounds generated by the weather

Are you both big weather geeks?
Ha! We wouldn’t say we’re necessarily weather geeks as such, but through the development of the piece we have learned a huge amount about the practice and history of meteorology. It is truly astounding just how pervasive the weather is on absolutely every aspect of life on earth, and the source of so many folk tales and rituals.

What components make up the piece? Is it a mixture of meteorological and audio equipment?
The center point of the piece is a research-grade weather station (the Campbell Scientific BWS-200), which monitors a number of incoming weather conditions (solar radiation, wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity and more). This data is sent to a computer running a suite of custom software that triggers, manipulates and generates material from a site-specific 24 movement score containing thousands of fragments of sound and notation. This score is interwoven with algorithmic compositional techniques based on a series of rule systems incorporating historical and current compositional techniques. The audio output is then spatialized over a concealed 8-speaker system that surrounds the weather station.

The composers and designers James Bulley and Daniel Jones

Who does what in the dynamic of your working relationship?
There’s a great deal of overlap in our working relationship and we work on all of the main concepts together. We are both doctoral researchers at Goldsmiths, in Music (Bulley) and Computing (Jones), and so while both having particular specialities, we often work collaboratively in the respective studios.

As a generative piece, how do the weather conditions affect the style of the music? How does the sound generated by rainfall differ to wind, for instance?
Each movement in the score has a specific set of weather conditions related to it, and the composition of a movement bears a relation to these conditions in subtle ways. We try to avoid the obvious clichés—timpanis for a thunderstorm, for example—but we are keen for there to be identifiable differences. The ideal situation would be for a remote listener to be able to envisage the location’s weather conditions just by listening to the Variable 4 audio stream.

Variable 4, Dungeness, May 2010. Photo: Josh Pollen


Have you any plans to test the installation in extreme weather conditions?
Very much! We hope to be taking the installation abroad over the coming 18 months. We’re particularly attracted to the landscape of Iceland, especially given some of the extreme weather conditions that are prevalent there.

We’re currently preparing Variable 4 for an installation on top of Elizabeth Castle, Jersey, as part of the Branchage Film Festival (September 22-25). This is located on a particularly exposed promontory on the south coast, cut off from the rest of the island at high tide. We expect the conditions there to be particularly wild and variable, which should make for highly unpredictable musical trajectories.

Let’s just drift into the world of fantasy for a sec: Would you like to see a machine that’s the inversion of yours, where sounds generate weather conditions?
That’s a very lovely idea. It would be a remarkable thing to be able to do, but imagine the power that you would have with a machine that could do that—the commercial and military applications of that are pretty intimidating.

There are 24 movements that make up the musical content, which the weather then composes. How did you come up with those? What were the factors involved?
The 24 movements consist of all of the major and minor keys in the western tempered scale. Each of these movements, as mentioned earlier, has a set of weather conditions related to it and a time condition (day, dusk, night, dawn).

The material for the movements is composed initially (as notation) based on these parameters and our experience of the site. In Snape Maltings, the score referenced a number of Benjamin Britten motifs, who originally founded the concert hall there. We work with a wide array of musicians to record individual parts and ideas using studio production techniques. These parts are then edited into tiny note-by-note fragments and added to the global score, where they are controlled by harmonic relationships and algorithmic techniques, to be ultimately triggered by appropriate weather conditions.

The movements are mapped out onto a single lattice-like grid, related to each other by a musical rule system—the circle of fifths—which allows harmonic progression from one to another. As the piece moves from movement to movement, elements of many may be playing at once, creating unpredictable polytonalities. If the weather conditions change so quickly that a harmonic progression between movements is not possible, then we employ ‘wormholes’, a term we’ve coined for this purpose. A wormhole is an arrhythmic and often atonal bridge, which serves to join two unrelated musical movements.

There are six wormholes within the piece, derived from a broad range of source material (field recordings, synthesis). Each wormhole is algorithmically manipulated by the current weather conditions on a variety of different levels.

Excerpt: 0335-0342 – Variable 4, Snape Maltings Installation, May 29th 2011 by Variable 4

Have you any ambition to create more of these real-time weather-reactive instruments, so you could maybe have an orchestra?
We’re planning to make Variable 4 the first in a triptych of pieces that engage with the landscape in a broad sense. The remaining two may not be weather reactive, but they’ll undoubtedly be complementary in other ways.