if we do nothing


James Alexander Wyness (UK)

jimmy2@wyness.org : http://www.wyness.org


Anthropogenically driven changes in the environment take place every day and have done so for centuries. The approaching dangers of relatively recent acceleration in such changes are comprehensively documented. It is predicted that the effects of such changes, if we do nothing to modify our collective behaviour, will be to cause widespread and irreversible damage to physical, biological and human managed systems. These effects will be felt differently by different populations in different climatic zones. My idea is to investigate aspects of the causes and effects of climate change, in particular tipping elements, responding to these by creating accessible immersive sound installations which sonify meaningful data-sets. I am calling upon the expertise of three partners: one with advanced programming and data networking skills in the synthesis language Supercollider; the Cryosphere and Climate Change Group at Aberdeen University to advise me on the selection, interpretation and

presentation of static and real-time data sets, as eventual raw material for the sonification models; a partner with extensive curatorial experience. I envisage eventually producing an installation which responds to real-time data, whilst simultaneously laying firm foundations (partners, research, funding strategy) for an eventual permanent installation.


The project sets out to investigate the creative sonification of data that reflect climate change, for example glaciers/ice sheets mass balance and more generally sea ice extent. 2017 will see the research, modelling and testing of new sonification ideas and techniques, the presentation of public outcomes, the establishment of new partnerships and in-depth evaluation/feedback across all activites – in developing my work conference presentation and publication will be significant, hence this proposal. Altogether these will lay foundations for an eventual innovative fixed permanent installation which interprets and sonifies real- time data.

My idea is conceptually simple and responds to ‘sense of place’ by creating a place where listeners will be invited to feel the results of climate change by apprehending accessible sonic representations, which nonetheless offer second-order complexity and tension as the sonic medium interprets ‘tipping elements’ – global warming, rising CO2 levels or ice sheet diminution. I will exploit sound’s advantages, as a phenomenological reality in itself, sound-over-sign, felt somatically, over certain forms of visual media. For example, selected tipping elements (temperature, ice levels) mapped from a given date up to the predicted tipping point (if we do nothing), are scaled appropriately. Shifting frequencies, perceived as pitches, would indicate rising temperature or diminishing ice cover. As tipping points approach, the frequencies reach inaudibility at higher and lower thresholds, descending/ascending beyond perception, though sound might still be felt (as vibration) and differently so for individuals, mirroring how climate change will be experienced differently by populations around the planet. Thus the listener engages with two complex sounds (ie not sine waves) having a strong fundamental frequency, recognisable as shifting pitches. The interaction of such sonic shifts produces artifacts and perturbations, eliciting further interest in the sonic medium, offering analogies with chaotic systems. A more ‘horizontal’ signification might interpret species loss or biodiversity reduction by mapping to the density of sonic events over given time-scales. Complex noise-based timbres might effectively represent various chaotic conditions as tipping points pass. Data scaling ensures that sonifications are meaningfully mapped to critical fields appropriate to the order of human perception and attention – eg, one hour representing the next 10 years (if we do nothing, if we intervene positively), several hours representing the past 50 years until now. A pre-industrial date, when conditions were considered to be ‘balanced’, might be represented by a single pitch bifurcating as changes take place over years, scaled to the listener’s temporal order. Different timbres might represent several fields as climate change analogues drift towards worst-case scenarios.

The underlying idea is similar in all cases – people come to physical, phenomenological understandings about critical changes, sound and silence become conceptually and structurally significant.

My testing methodology, based on psychoacoustics, will ensure that sonic elements easily perceived and understood by listeners. Beyond this lie opportunities for investigating discrete ecological systems (perhaps even local to Balance-Unbalance 2017), choral/instrumental data renditions, mythopoetic investigations into environmental value systems of early Scottish and sub-Arctic populations, multimedia support (for the installations), further collaborations, interactive and educational possibilities, special access for the visually impaired.

Author Biography

James Wyness is an independent composer, sound artist and researcher based in Scotland. His solo work encompasses live electroacoustic music performance, instrumental free improvisation, electroacoustic and electronic music composition, sound installation, digital and acoustic instrument building. He regularly collaborates with musicians and artists of other disciplines, from moving image makers to choreographers and movement specialists. His work has been performed and presented internationally. He has been a recipient of numerous awards and commissions and has worked as a resident artist both nationally and internationally. He holds an MA(Hons) in French Studies and a PhD in Composition from the University of Aberdeen.

Balance-Unbalance 2017

Balance-Unbalance (BunB)
is an International Conference designed to use art as a catalyst to explore intersections between NATURE, SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY and SOCIETY as we move into an era of both unprecedented ecological threats and transdisciplinary possibilities.

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