A Duo Plan to Turn Liffey Water Samples into Music

Mikael Fernström and Sean Taylor’s first project, years back, was to translate a year of rainfall into an orchestral work.

More recently, they’ve made four years of data around bee disease and colony collapse into an abstract composition.

Now the pair, who collaborate as Softday, want help collecting water samples to give a snapshot of water quality in the River Liffey system on a single day – and they’ll then turn those samples into music.

“On one level, music is numbers,” says Fernström, a computer scientist. “Environmental data is numbers.”

They’re inviting people to pick up a free water-sample kit from the Science Gallery in Dublin’s city centre, find a stream, river, or tap on Friday, and return the sample to the museum that evening.

“We’re trying to get a snapshot of the river, and its tributaries, and the domestic supply on that day. Which would make us very very unique,” says Taylor, an artist.

Citizen scientists can collect water on Friday from anywhere in the Liffey system, he says. From the tap at home, from little streams or tributaries, or from canals.

But they should make sure they don’t fall into the river, says Taylor. “Please don’t do that.”

Citizen Science

Fernström, a lecturer at the University of Limerick, specialises in auditory display. In other words, how you display data as sound.

It’s a technique used by all sorts, from scientists at NASA to surgeons in theatre listening to the beep of a pulse monitor, he says.

It’s also something that Taylor, an artist and lecturer at Limerick School of Art and Design, was curious about a couple of decades back – so he turned up to a conference on computer-generated music in 1999.

He chatted to Fernström and told him about an idea he’d had in his sketchbook for ages. “I’d cut out all of the weather maps that are in the back of the Irish Times, every day for a year,” he says.

He wondered if they could make a piece of music from the rainfall data, he says. That became their rainfall project.

Since then, they’ve worked together on loads more. The Shannon Suite looked at overfishing and the four-year life cycle of the wild Atlantic salmon, while the Dead Zone drew inspiration from marine ecosystems in Donegal.

More recently, they worked with Irish beekeepers, and the monks of Glenstal Abbey, to create the Song of the Bees.

“We sonified four years of colony collapse disorder. You know, this terrible disease that’s affecting bees,” says Taylor.

Taylor says he turned towards making socially engaged art not long after he graduated in the early 1980s from the Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork.

He went to work in Belfast after at the height of the Troubles. “It had a major impact on how I worked,” Taylor says.

“It seemed very facile to be making, you know, beautiful sculptures in a studio and looking out on the Divis Flats, and seeing what was happening out there,” he says.

He and Fernström were in Chicago when they came up with the idea of an art project looking at, or listening to, water pollution and the River Liffey.

They were tuned into the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and were also staying near parts of Chicago where low-income residents had been left with lead in their water supply, says Taylor.

They proposed a project based on pollution data in the Chicago River, but thought they’d test it in Ireland first.

“We looked at the Liffey because of recent pollutions, being very aware as well of the state of Dublin Bay and some of the beaches as well,” says Taylor. “And also, the tributaries like the Dodder as well are also really affected.”

Both Taylor and Fernström are enthusiastic about working with a wide circle of collaborators in the River Liffey project.

“The idea of engaging citizen scientists is very appealing,” says Fernström. “Empowering people to do something themselves.”

Into Music

Fernström says they’ll convert the water samples into sound with similar tools to rainfall project 20 years ago: a computer algorithm and an AI.

They’re talking to community groups such as Fighting Words, and others who know about song traditions in Dublin, to get inspiration for what they’ll feed the AI to learn this time, says Fernström.

They’ll analyse the data in a bunch of ways too, he says. “We’ll do the whole kitchen sink.”

Those who give a sample will become part of the project and get an invite to a live performance, says Taylor. And “a copy of whatever artefact we produce at the end of it, whether its a CD or whatever”.

There’ll be other ways to get involved later too, beyond collecting water samples if people stay tuned in, he says. “This is one step in the project.”

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

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