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Greg Niemeyer creates new music for a new problem

Photo courtesy of http://www.sevenairs.com/data.html

What does the phrase “emotional science” mean to you? For some, it implies psychology. For Greg Niemeyer, a tenured associate professor in UC Berkeley’s department in New Media, “emotional science” means science that stimulates and engages. Niemeyer is also the director of the Data and Democracy Initiative at CITRIS, The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, which looks to utilize technology and science to help individuals makes democratic and conscious decisions about the world around them. Their latest project, Sevenairs, takes the air quality measurements in California and turns them into music.

Turnstyle News: How does this project relate to the work being done by the Data and Democracy Initiative?

Greg Niemeyer: Well, as citizens we have the right to breathe but we also have the right to pollute. And we need to have a lot of information about the quality of air we breathe in order to make meaningful choices about how the air quality affects our health. So if we can think about different ways of looking at, understanding and learning about air quality and voicing our concerns about it we can make better decisions about both our exposure to pollution and sources of pollution and that will make us more free and active citizens.

Turnstyle: Why is music the chosen medium to present this data?

Niemeyer: In this particular project we used music because we wanted to make the experience of data suspenseful. When you look at the Sevenairs website you can see that music is playing and data is scrolling, and you can see how air quality measurement data makes certain sounds happen. So what happens is that you want to see what happens next. That slight element of suspense we find makes people look at the data more closely and they think, “That sound was interesting. I wonder what caused that spike in the air pollution?” It’s supposed to be more engaging than straight-up data would be. So the idea is how can we make looking at air quality fun?

It’s like, how interesting is a thermometer? It goes up and down, up and down. And it’s not very interesting if you turn it into numbers either. But if you say, “Hey, is it colder or hotter than it was yesterday?” Suddenly that’s an interesting piece of information. The same is true for air quality, how can we make it interesting? We can show that it changes dramatically. At the moment it’s a little more dramatic than plain data, and music certainly helps [to show that].

Turnstyle: Are you a musician yourself?

Niemeyer: No, I’m not. I’m just a new media artist. My colleague Chris Chaffe from Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford, is the composer of this piece. We’ve been working together for many years, since 2001, and we’ve dealt with the “musification” of data in that time.

Turnstyle: One of your projects is called the Tomato Quintet. In that project you used the gases produced by tomatoes during ripening to create music. Another collaboration with Chaffe?

Niemeyer: That’s correct, we worked on that together. Tomatoes produce certain gases such as Ethylene and CO2 while they ripen, while they turn from green to red. The redder they get the more C02 and Ethylene they produce, and we can measure that and turn it into music.

Turnstyle: And what did that sound like? I noticed that the pollution music had sort of an eerie tone.

Niemeyer: The tomatoes produced a kind of salsa music. It was very rhythmic. It was not quite as eerie. There were four channels of music: One was salsa music, one was a kind of crackling sound, one was the sound of wind, and one was the sound of a flute. Those four channels together created quite a musical landscape. It was a little unusual. Sevanairs is just one single take on two channels of data. So there’s one flute and one guitar.

Turnstyle: Is setting the musical tone a conscious decision or does it just come about organically?

Niemeyer: We made those decisions based on what we wanted it to feel like. So we wanted the tomato quintet to be sort of festive and fun. Ideally we wanted the people who came to see the ripening tomatoes to start dancing and produce more carbon dioxide from exhaling, because then the carbon dioxide would get the tomatoes to ripen faster. The whole thing would kind of be like a harvest festival.

In the case of [Sevenairs], we went to several sites in the 35th parallel that are supposed to be beautiful and are supposed to be full of regenerative properties but we found them all to be somewhat polluted. We sort of missed the pure experience of a clean land and clean air, and we’re not getting that anywhere really. So we’re almost reflecting back on a time—a time that may have never existed—but nevertheless we imagine that time, a time where California was more pure.

Turnstyle: So have you received any feedback from the public or other scientists about the music?

Niemeyer: We’ve done it for a while and the feedback we get sometimes is that people think it’s much more composed and arranged than they think is possible coming from two lines of data. So the flutes, for example, they sound like someone is really playing the flute with a certain type of tambour, with a certain type of vibe to it. People often think that there’s somehow a real person in there playing live.

We also got the feedback that the music does sound a little eerie and sets a certain kind of mood. Some people say it’s a little difficult to listen to because it’s not traditional music. It doesn’t have a beat like most music does or a melody that comes around or any lyrics. But it’s a new kind of music for a new kind of problem, which is how to live more in harmony with these environmental challenges we face.

Turnstyle: Your approach to science seems very playful. Do you consider yourself a rarity in your field in that sense?

Niemeyer: I don’t think I am a rarity as much as I’m sort of just not a scientist. I grew up around a lot of science and I respect science and I know a lot of scientists who I love to talk to. But my discipline is really game design and so I’m curious about, how can we get people who aren’t scientists-by-training to engage in scientific thinking and how can we show that’s it fun? I’m trying to see how I can get people to engage in scientific concepts and scientific reasoning without making it look like a whole bunch of math and a whole bunch of technology and whole bunch of biology but rather the thinking itself, the joy of discovery, the joy of curiosity.

Turnstyle: Were you surprised at all by the data that you collected?

Niemeyer: Yes, yes I was. I always am. It’s so funny because as a traditional scientists you usually have a hypothesis about what you’re looking for and then you try to find an experiment that either confirms or denies the hypothesis versus when we go out and measure stuff it’s more of a matter of general curiosity. Much like a photographer might go out into the world and just takes pictures of things until he or she finds something interesting, we just measure air quality data until we find something interesting.

So this approach with Sevenairs actually comes from a Japanese television station that wanted to do a documentary on what happens along the 35th parallel. They came to California and asked us if we could do this project with them and so we gave them some tools to measure air quality with and they actually collected the samples in this case and when we got the results back we were very surprised. They went to this Monarch grove which is a Monarch Butterfly reserve and it seems to be very polluted with volatile organic compounds and we have no idea what actually happened there so we have to follow up. It seems like some of these well-known natural reserves aren’t as fresh at all as we think they might be. What I think might have happened in the case of the Monarch Grove is it is a densely forested area with lots of plants, and it so happened that there was a lot of decompositions happening when they went there and a lot of decay, so there were a lot of volatile organic compounds in the air that they seemed to have measured.

Turnstyle: For those of us, including myself, who can’t tell the difference between a Doppler and a doorbell, can you explain how you went about collecting this data and the significance of Volatile Organic Compounds and Carbon Dioxide? What role do they play in air pollution?

Niemeyer: When it comes to air pollution there are many factors we want to consider. One is combustion. If there’s too much C02 air it can lead to a reduced breathing capacity so we have to breathe more in order to get the air we need. It can make us sleepy and so forth. Volatile Organic Compounds are airborne solvents. You know how if you have a can of glue and you open the lid, there are a lot of Volatile Organic Compounds that come out. Same is true for alcohol, same is true for perfumes or hairspray or methane that is released from the human body or other sources. And all of these can impact us as neurotoxins, they can make us dizzy or drowsy and that is unhealthy.

For us, Carbon Dioxide and Volatile Organic Compounds are indicators of human industrial activity. If there’s a lot of industry, if there’s a lot of pollution coming from cooking or any kind of combustion, we see that in Carbon Dioxide and Volatile Organic Compounds.

Turnstyle: You collected data in downtown Hollywood and on Pismo beach. What did the decision-making process look like when you were choosing locations? Were there any deal-breakers for certain spots?

Niemeyer: Well, deal-breakers, there were some…Deal-breakers as in [the Japanese T.V Station] got in trouble in some places. They got kicked out of Harris Ranch [in Coalinga, California] because the people there didn’t want that data to be available. That was something we found often; some people are very sensitive about air quality and they really don’t want you to tell anyone what the air quality is like. For example, we wanted to do a project in Cairo, Egypt and this was before the revolution. The Egyptian government really didn’t want any air quality data to get out of the country, so they were very upset about [the project] and, in fact, started arresting the people that we worked with there.

This interview was originally published on February 1, 2012 on TurnstyleNews.com, where you can hear a sample of Niemeyer’s music.