The Sourdough Project

A major soundscape creation for 2019 is to sonify data for the Sourdough Project. The Rob Dunn Lab at NCSU, the Ben Wolfe Lab at Tufts, and the Noah Fierer Lab at the University of Colorado are collaborating to further the study of microbiomes in sourdough starters. The Sourdough Project has gathered starters from many parts of the world in order to study the bacteria and yeast interactions that create the fermenting acids and leavening gases necessary for the creation of sourdough bread.

In October 2018, the Sourdough Project Team and two artists met at the As If Center in Bakersville NC. The As If Center (Art and science In the field) is the burgeoning vision of Nancy Lowe, who is keenly interested in exploring this fertile collaborative area.The other artist was Ferne Johannssen, freshly graduated from college, and off to see what life outside of Vermont has to offer. Ferne is a visual artist/printmaker. [Interestingly, Ferne made a print on a scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) which grows and ferments in kombucha tea.] The purpose of our meeting was to seed an artistic and scientific direction for sharing the data from the Sourdough Project. All three labs were represented and we spent most of our time sharing information and structuring the research paper that will come from this study. Here is a description of the study from the Rob Dunn Lab website:

There are millions of kinds of bacteria and fungi on Earth. We have found several thousand species in human belly buttons alone. Yet if you mix flour and water, the community of organisms that colonize the resulting concoction is almost always composed of a small handful of organisms that are able to leaven bread, yielding a sourdough starter. How this happens is one of civilizations great mysteries, a mystery at the heart of the bread making (and, for that matter, traditional beer brewing). Yet, while bakers understand how to make starters, the underlying biology of the species in these starters remains mysterious. Starters can produce similar effects on bread (and similar flavors), despite being composed of different species, a key different ingredient. Conversely, starters composed of the same species sometimes yield different flavors. Then there is the issue of what happens to starters over time. The organisms in starters are hypothesized, by some, to stay the same over time—an old growth forest of miniatures—even if their living conditions change. Few ecosystems are so (apparently) stable. Then again, starters can change through time, sometimes suddenly. Starters are, if anything, predictably mysterious. But not for long. We aim to understand the biology underlying the differences among starters and the changes (or lack of change) in starters through time.

The last sentence of this description is what I honed in on. My current sense of how to render data as sound is that it would be most effective with data changes (or lack of) across a timeline. The other word that caught my eye is biology. What is biology? The science of living matter in all forms and phenomena, with special reference to origins, growth, structure, behavior and reproduction. The bases of biology are macromolecules (proteins, lipids, nucleic acids and carbohydrates), cells, and evolutionary changes creating phylogenic families across species. With sourdough starters, we are at the microbial layer of life. On the microbial level, diversity rules and it may have something to teach us. That is what I hope!

The Sourdough Project team had a conference call a few weeks ago, where we saw some of the data analysis of the samples, and received updates from each of the labs. Patterns are starting to emerge as the data is narrowed and focused into categorical relationships. This is the crossroads where it all comes together in the question: What do I want from this data? This most interesting question was posed our first night at As If Center, as we sat around an outdoor fire: what is your currency? what do you want from this project? I can’t remember ever having been asked that before.

The bakers who sent in samples want to know the microbiotic fingerprint of their particular starter. The scientists want to discover some new information about the ecologies of sourdough starters in general. The artists are interested in translation, transposition, representation of the discoveries found in the fingerprints. For myself, I am looking to identify a timeline and voice the bacteria-yeast exchange that is fermentation and leavening. Here is a diagram of a potential time frame:

Water + flour =

aab(acetic acid bacteria) ~ LAB (Lactic Acid Bacteria) ~ Yeasts

which give rise (the timeline but also a phase within the process)

to VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) aroma

To my ear this begins with the very lively interaction of the organisms that changes over time into a lighter, gaseous state. There is an alchemy that takes place and we are trying to hear and understand that.

Still looking at TRIC (Terry Riley’s In C) as a template for orchestrating interesting timbral relationships in this context. Pattern 35 is a possible frame for rise which seems to be the name of this piece. Pattern 35 jumps to a start with an eighth note run. This is the organism interaction phase. Then the mid section is where the rise happens with more space and elevation in tone. Then the aromatic texture is very open and light and unfinished.

What other sound elements might lend to this soundscape? There are likely real live sound samples to be had from this process. Another thought is what if each starter could have its own microbiome sounded out? To do this, I need to see more deeply into the data then I have to this date.

More to come…

*Photo from The Sourdough Project website