Massachusetts Geophonic

Music from the geologic map of Massachusetts

Massachusetts Geophonic is both an interactive piece of music and a musical instrument. It is a interface to create music out of data from the USGS MA geologic map, mapping from the geologic properties of the rocks to sound. The challenge was to map 2D, sometimes qualitative geologic data into a piece of music, which is usually a one-dimensional format (time). To facilitate this Massachusetts Geophonic is open ended. The music is shaped by the performer (or explorer), but its structures are created by the geology. The properties of the rocks are the underlying musical material, and the performer can exploit them in varied combinations.

Massachusetts Geophonic was commissioned by Swissnex Boston for the opening on June 4, 2013 of Swiss Style Reboot - a show of Swiss style infographics at Northeastern University.

Below is a video of the premiere performance at Northeastern. I've performed the piece several times since, each time with slight improvements and new features. It now includes user-selectable musical scale, tonic note and transposition, and two-way integration with the KMI QuNeo.

Try it yourself

You can download Massachusetts Geophonic for Mac or Windows and try it out. All you'll need to explore (and perform) the geologic map of Massachusetts is a mouse and keyboard. Requires Windows XP+ or OS X 10.5+.

Download Massachusetts Geophonic

How It Works

Massachusetts Geophonic presents the geologic map of the state as a set of data layers such as Rock Age, Rock Type, Major Faults and Gravity Anomaly. These data layers constitute a palette from which the performer/explorer can create music. Using the mouse, the performer manipulates the endpoints of up to four paths on the map which also operate as musical loops with moving 'playheads'. The software interprets the geologic data that the loop's playhead traverses and synthesizes music from it based on sets of rules that the performer can modify with onscreen controls. Data layers can be turned on or off to control the complexity of the sound or bring out different aspects of the geology sonically.

Detailed description (PDF)

A video compiled from my explanation and question and answer section at the first performance. I wan't very good at explaining it succinctly yet, so I'm working on making a better explanation video.

Maestro Frankenstein

Maestro Frankenstein is an end-user application for the composition and production of geophonic music. Think of it as a "Garageband for scientists" - if not quite as pretty as Garageband :). Maestro Frankenstein acts as a data sequencer, translating numeric time-series data into audio and/or MIDI. Basic compositions or sketches can be completed within the program itself, or individual samples and parts created in Maestro Frankenstein can be exported and assembled in your digital audio workstation software of choice, such as Logic, Ardour, Pro Tools, Cubase or DP, for greater compositional freedom.

Created in collaboration with Alessandro Montanari of the Osservatorio Geologico di Coldigioco, and Gabriele Rosseti, with a generous grant from AEA/Loccioni.

Maestro Frankenstein 2.0 beta 2 is now online - it generally works, but is not complete and there are certainly bugs. See the user guide.

Maestro Frankenstein 2 is a new, re-imagined, simpler to use version that [hopefully at some point soon] won't be full of bugs that I can't fix. It doesn't have all the features version 1 had, but it is already much easier, faster and predictable to use.

Maestro Frankenstein 1 and its Max/MSP source are freely available here. It currently requires a Mac with OS X 10.4 or greater or windows XP (or greater?) to run.

Climate Controlled

An interactive sonic installation based on 5.3 Million years of global climate change from the geologic record.

See below for Documentation

An installation that plays back the last 5.3 million years of climate data from the geologic record as sound, with accompanying visuals and lights. Eight speakers are positioned geographically, each representing a location where deep sea sediments were drilled. Each plays back the data from that particular core as sound.

Visitors are able to control time - setting the sound in motion either backwards or forwards through time at any speed, with fluid realtime control via a tactile timeline interface. One should be able to hear temporal and spatial variations in ocean core data as the Earth's climate changes through time. Projected visuals display date and average global climate at the current time. The software contains a library of important dates in geology, biology and human evolution that are indicated textually when the piece arrivers at the corresponding date. A map display shows which cores are active at any given time and gives visitors a sense of geography. The space is also visually activated using computer-controlled lighting that reacts to the climate data - turning the whole space red or blue along with the ice-ages and warm periods.

This installation is an undergraduate honors thesis project in the Music Department at Brown University and will be on display the 1st or 2nd week of April, 2007. Many thanks to my advisor Butch Rovan, Tim Herbert, Kira Lawrence and Hans Dejong (who worked on and provided me with the bulk of the data), Laura Cleveland, Alessandro Montanari, Gabriele Rosetti and AEA/Loccioni.



Climate Controlled and my Geophonic music have been featured on:

Exhibit Info

Climate Controlled was on display March 19 - 22, 2007 in the P.W. UpSpace in the TF Green Building at Brown University and Sept 28th - Oct 13, 2007 at The Space at Alice at 70 Eddy St. in downtown Providence, RI as part of the Pixilerations festival.

Aphrodite's Dew

Aphrodite's Dew is a book and CD project I am working on with Sandro Montanari - a prominent Italian geologist and friend of mine who got me going in this vein of geophonic music - at the Osservatorio Geologico di Coldigioco.

Aphrodite's Dew will chronicle the search for a high accuracy indicator of past Holocene climate change in the nearly-unknown biomineral pelagosite - found in the adriatic along the craggy limestone coasts. So far we have been studying and making music from El Niño, the North Atlantic Oscillation and weather-station data from the adriatic region over the past 150 years, with the hope that, along with dendrochronology, we can use this data to calibrate compositional changes in the microscopic layers found in pelagosite to regional climate and look at climate farther back into the past (up to maybe 10,000 years) with very high precision. The music is a fun game that goes along with the research, produces interesting artistic results, and can help people to experience geologic time and events on a visceral and human timescale. And get people interested in just what it is that they are hearing!

Here are a few short pieces I am working on for the project:

A piece based on El Niño data from the last 150 years - the guitar is El Niño and the percussion is peaks of important periods of variability within the el niño data - so it has a relationship to the melody, but not what you would expect from a drum kit!

And a piece based on the North Atlantic Oscillation - the percussion is actually different "important period of variation" filterings of the data translated directly into sound waves, lead synth is the NAO data, bass is a smoothed version of the NAO data.

You can find any new pieces here

A big part of this project is also Maestro Frankenstein (see below). The program will be included on the CD so that interested people can play with data and make their own music!


Chemical Weathering - a sound/animation composition about chemical weathering, sedimentary geology and earth systems history! Adheres to the "sensory overload" aesthetic. [video, 2005, Requires Quicktime and a fast internet conenction or lots of time]