January 29, 2015

A haunting 8-day-long orchestration of modern seismicity

Posted by Austin Elliott

We’re getting ever-richer ways to “view” the seismic restlessness of our planet, from this beautiful map of all the tremors we’ve recorded, and this sparkling NOAA animation of quakes in the past decade (or the last year), to the of tympanic drama of individual earthquake sequences. At the same time, artists find inspiration for performance in the fundamental natural rhythms of the planet, staging ballets and concerts backed with live seismic recordings, and composing music derived from seismograms of individual earthquakes. Somewhere in the middle are orchestral representations of earthquakes, which are among my favorite thingsDavid Johnson may have found the captivating/beautiful/eerie midpoint between scientific data and artistic performance with his 8-day-long orchestration of recorded seismic history.

Visual during the music of the 2004 Sumatra earthquake sequence. On YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNStzf810n4

Visual during the music of the 2004 Sumatra earthquake sequence

This “piece,” rendered from a Python program and a music editing software package, is aptly titled “The Poseidon Ensemble,” after the Greek god of earthquakes. If you have the fortitude to withstand eight days of orchestral seismicity, you can theoretically construct the work yourself. Otherwise, key enticing snippets have been extracted and posted to youtube, and they sound like a horror soundtrack Kubrick would approve of:

2014 Iquique earthquake
1989 Loma Prieta earthquake

2004 Sumatra earthquake:

For those with some fortitude, like, a sensible amount, there’s a 6-hour exerpt–of just the earthquakes of 2014–available on MixCloud, here: http://www.mixcloud.com/struct/the-poseidon-ensemble-2014/

Johnson has struck eerie magic with this, setting his “auralization” apart by finding just the right haunting tempo, accomplished by decreasing the playback speed through time as we detected smaller and smaller earthquakes. He has also enriched the sound by adding musical instrumentation that represents different regions. A descriptive interview with him by The Creators Project fleshes out the parameters of this work. There’s plenty of detail in that article that I need not repeat here. Instead I’ll encourage this audience to load up the MixCloud exerpt of just 2014 and listen in to hear what a familiar year of earthquakes sounds like played out in chords.

Some highlights of the year are going to include the fascinating sequence of large earthquakes that led up to and followed the magnitude 8.1 Iquique earthquake in late March and early April (~1.5 hours in, +/- ten minutes), and the string of closely spaced strong events that struck New Zealand in late June (halfway through the recording). The intense, persistent, and ongoing spate of moderate earthquakes in Oklahoma provide an unsettling ring underpinning the whole year. Find your favorite earthquake in the recording, and feel free to highlight particularly beautiful/odd/scary/exciting segments of the piece in the comments.