Sonification and Life Forms II

Since excitedly sharing the results of a sonic analysis of Lemur Gut Microbiomes, I have been working up a soundscape based on the quick sketch included in the first Sonifications and Life Forms post. (You can hear both below.) In order to get feedback on the work, I sent the first blog post to Mark Ballora, with whom I had taken a data sonification workshop in May. His response helped me realize the need to clarify my sonification process. So here is a description of the project:

The purpose of the sonification is to illustrate the changes in baby lemur microbiomes from birth to weaning. Microbiome data was captured through fecal samples taken at birth, through nursing, introduction to solid foods, regular solid foods, and two times while the babies were weaning. The sonification will illustrate changes in the type and amount of bacterial phyla present at each of the six sampling stages for all three lemur babies. In addition, the mother’s microbiome was sampled at the time she gave birth, so her profile, which was assumed not to change, provides a baseline adult profile with which to compare the babies’ changes.

There were 255 strains of bacteria collected over the course of the study. These fell into 95 classes and 35 phylum. I focused on the phylum, as my plan was to assign a note value to each bacterial data point, so I needed a smaller data set. The data set was narrowed further (and made more interesting) by focusing on a family: a mother Pryxis, and her triplets, Carne, Puck and Titan. This group allows us to not only hear the variety of changes in the babies’ microbiomes, but compare the changes as well.

The original data set included 9 lemur babies and 7 mothers. So the first step was to go through the phylum data sheets and pull out the profiles for Pryxis, Carne, Puck and Titan. A phylum profile would be the type and amount of each phyla present at each data collection point. The profile changes over time at each collection point. The microbiomes of these four lemurs housed 15 phylum (at a density of >.001) out of the 35 found in the entire study group.

The next step was to assign a note value to each phyla. Since there are only 13 notes available in the chromatic scale, some phylum would need to be on the same note, albeit a different octave. Same note, different octave will lend a tonal consonance to the profiles. So what might this consonance represent? There were 5 phylum that had the greatest density and presence in all the samples, so I assigned those to the note G from octave 1 to 5. The remaining 10 phylum were assigned note values based on their presence throughout the profiles, and on their consonance/dissonance with the tonal center G.

In order to capture the density of each phyla, a midi velocity range was aligned with the decimal percentage of the phyla in each profile. Midi velocity settings determine the force with which the note is played. Thus the velocity ranges render a clear sense of presence or loudness to each note played. The decimal percentages ran from .001 to 1.0 and the midi velocity range runs from 1 – 127. Here is a chart of how these ranges overlap:

So for example, Protobacteria present at .25473 would be represented by the note G at octave 3 set at 40 velocity. The largest sample in all the data points captured for this project was around .9 and the smallest was .001 (this was a cutoff point as there were bacterial phylum present down to .0001 ranges.) Here is the chart for Titan showing note assignment and density values through each sample stage:

My sounding board for this data comparison is Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation (DAW). The individual lemurs are represented by a “voice”/midi instrument in Ableton. Tuck, Titan and Carne are bell-like voices that blend together, while Pryxis, the mother, is a warm, pervasive woodwind. She envelops and contains the changes in the babies’ phylum profiles.

All lemurs had a Phylum Profile Chart like the one above. In the DAW, the instrument track for Titan, for Puck and for Carne contains a midi-clip of notes of the phylum colonies present at each stage of dietary change, which were then laid out as a “scene” in Ableton. As example, Titan’s Phylum Profile at birth was

Protobacteria (Note value=G3) set at 101/127 in intensity

Euryarcheatae (Note Value=A2) set at 34/127

Firmicutes (Note Value=G2) set at 11/127

Cyanobacteria (Note Value=A#4) set at 1/127

Other Bacteria (Note Value=B3) set at 1/127

Spirochaetae (Note Value=G5) set at 1/127

Titan’s Birth Phylum Profile is the multi octave chord GAA#B. Three of the phylum were barely present, so those tones are almost inaudible in the chord. However, 2 Gs and the A ring out. The total number of phylum present in each dietary stage varied from 3 to 14, so the multi octave chord becomes more dense and dissonant when the phylum are so varied. Here is a look at the tracks (individual lemur voices) and the “scenes” (which are the phylum profiles from all 3 babies at each stage.)

The first sketch was just the mother’s phylum profile droning under the three babies’ profiles expressed as a stacked megachord. All 3 baby profiles rang out together four times at each stage, starting with birth and ending with the second wean. What could be heard was a homogeneity and consonance between the Mother and babies at birth that gradually became more diverse and dissonant as solid food was introduce. However, by the second wean, the babies’ and mother’s profiles become more consonant again. The researcher said this illustrated the conclusions of her study.

As a soundscape artist, I felt there was more here than just that basic chordal movement. The babies’ phylum profiles were quite different from each other as well, which is lost in the chord presentation. For example, Carne’s birth profile has only 3 phylum, while Titan has twice that amount. One way to hear this level of contrast in the baby profiles is to articulate the chords into riffs. Now we can hear the interplay of the changes in their microbiomes. In addition, we can hear how consonnant/dissonant and dense the phylum become as outside food is introduced into their systems. Titan’s phylum profiles arpeggiate down, Puck’s go up and Carne’s go down then up. A practiced deep listener could key in on a particular profile and follow it through to the end. I played around with rhythmic shifts to create more movement in the stages where the phylum profile were incredibly dense and diverse. The last two arpeggiating riffs you will hear are all of the phylum notes sounding through twice. And listen for the elevated levels of Protobacteria in all 3 profiles at birth – that G3 rings out at that point.

As I put this full family profile together, another more nuanced movement in the data appeared. In the chord rendering, I heard the data get more dissonant and dense from nursing through first wean, and then the phylum thinned out and became more consonant at the last wean. In the riff rendering, I can hear a contraction and more consonance at the Intro to Solid Foods stage as well as the second Wean. That was not clear in the chord presentation. When I checked my data records, there was a drop in the number of phylum present between Nurse and Intro stages. I love that a nuance appeared in the listening that made me go back and check the data. That is exactly how I hope this process will work.

Some other things for future consideration:

Aligning each phylum tone to a particular beat might help the listener hear the differences from stage to stage more clearly.

When assigning notes to data points, closer attention to the harmonic overtone series might help clarify the role consonance and dissonance play in hearing the data.

The voices of the baby profiles have similar timbre as a unifying element. The profiles could have very distinct voices which might make the variances in their profiles more audible.

Up next – Sourdough Songs.

Song of Sirens

paper.abstracts.8

When I was a child, we often visited our grandparents in Elkins WV. Elkins is home to the Mountain State Forest Festival, and is my birthplace. My Mother’s family has a long history with Elkins. Her grandfather was one of the first mayors and one of two doctors after the town’s 1890 incorporation. I am not sure how my Dad’s mother got there. Mamaw lived in a brick row apartment with a porch and stoop to play on. And she lived one block from the volunteer fire department.

When I slept over with Mamaw, there was always a fire in Elkins, sometimes two. The volunteers had to be called in from all over town, and what called them was the longest, most mournful sound my young ears had ever heard. As loud as it was (remember we were one small block away) the siren also sounded ghostly. It went on and on and on for an eternity and then it stopped! A lovely silence would fall and gently wash away the residue of the wailing. If it happened at night, I would return to sleep; by day, it was back to play. Either way, the siren always elicited a jolt of free-floating anxiety.

The Mountain State Forest Festival takes place the first weekend in October in Elkins and has for 85 years (with a short hiatus during WW II). This Festival was a highlight each and every year of my growing up. We got out of school for two days, traveled through the gorgeous colors and crisp fall air to spend several days with carnivals, exhibits, parades and pageantry. One of the parades took place on Friday night and involved 100 firetrucks sounding their sirens at the same time. The Fireman’s Parade attracted fire departments from all over West Virginia, and into Virginia and Maryland. The trucks would line up at one end of town and slowly make their way down the main street blaring the siren song of their station, their truck. The sound of 100 firetrucks calling their warning song together cannot be described. People flocked the sidewalk, laughing, trying to talk to each other over the din. My brother Matt is famous in our family for having slept through the Fireman’s Parade when he was a babe. Even back then, I enjoyed the interplay of the various intervals that make up a siren song.

A few years ago, my cohorts from iBoD (idiosyncratic Beats of Dejacusse) were discussing ideas for soundscapes. The one sound artifact that really stands out in the urban growth we are experiencing in Durham NC is the frequency of emergency sirens. This became the basis for an iBoD piece called The Sound…of Sirens. One online resource said the intervals of sirens telegraphed who’s coming: the police are a perfect fifth, ambulance is a fourth, and fire trucks are a whole tone. I designed the soundscape with those intervals. We all started with the basic intervals, and as the piece went on, we threw different intervals into the mix. The ending is a big crescendo and all out except the tail of the reverbed voices of the scape, which I turn up to a final fading shriek. We played the piece at a few venues. I thought of it as a novelty song.

I talked about all of this in an interview with Margaret Harmer, who produces electronic music as Shifting Waves. Margaret is producing an album of work from 15 to 20 women electronic artists from all over the world. She asked each of us to think back to a sound in our childhood, to find the story around that sound, and bring it forward into a piece. (I actually added that last part, Margaret did not say the story had to be about the piece for the album, and it sure did flow that way for me.) Here is a link to the interview.

http://www.shiftingwaves.com/blog_files/jude_casseday_interview.html

I took the soundscape for The Sound…of Sirens and began to analyze it harmonically and timbrally. The piece was sculpted from thick resonant voices (several synth pads and strings). This allowed me to carve out the movement of the sirens, the doppler effect of approach and recede, the abruptness of a nearby siren suddenly starting or stopping – the psychoacoustic impact we experience in our communities. Now called Song of Sirens, the piece was a fountain of siren voices overflowing and receding. There are several short repeated interludes during the first section. Several crescendos and several interesting places where the sound drops out leaving space in the front of the mix. This is most obvious when listening through headphones. This has peaked my interest in how we define the sonic space a piece takes up, and how to keep the full space alive when the sound recedes.

Siren’s song in mythology is characterized as an intentional “luring” of sailors onto the rocks. This sounds like one side of the story to me. Who was hearing and for what end? Was the siren song seductive, plaintive, demanding? Was it the call of grey seals, baying and mournful, resounding in the range of the female voice, a voice the sailors had not heard in years? Perhaps the sailors drove themselves into the rocks looking for women to rape. There are many possible scenarios when all points of view are considered.

I wanted to put an intention of comfort and nuturing from female voices into Song of Sirens. How interesting that modern day emergency sirens call out warning, answer your cry for help, or pursue you – all at once. How to embody all of this while flipping the mythology of blame the women. So I recorded Trudie, her daughter, Sheila, and three granddaughters singing phrases of Brahm’s Lullaby and wove them in and around the siren soundscape.

We are creating a new mythology as our brains and conciousnesses go through an extraordinary evolutionary shift. The reptillian brain – the one that fights or flees – is softening into the polyvagal brain. We are moving from survival of the fittest to survival of the kindest. Feminine consciousness knows how to be kind, not just benevolent. As the Song of Sirens raises the death knell of the reptillian brain, grandmothers, mothers and granddaughters sing a soothing lullaby swaddling the panicy cries.

Song of Sirens will be released as a track on Voices from Eris, produced by Shifting Waves studios. Stay tuned for more on fundraising and release date. I appreciate your listening!

My Left Toe


About ten days ago I wrenched my left pinky toe. The toe was intact and not misshapen or out of alignment, but I knew this was more than a stub. After holding the foot for a few moments, I put on tennis shoes and went on with the day. Wearing shoes felt better than walking barefoot, and once I was back home, elevation and a little ice helped the swelling do its work with less pain. Trudie obtained some Arnica cream which I used liberally the first 48 hours. I limited weight-bearing and encouraged movement in the area. The upper foot and toes went through blue-purple bruising that is not quite gone. And the pinky joint is tender to walk on. I am thrilled that it is 95% healed, and am allowing a good long time for that last 5% to come through. This is when the area needs the most awareness and healing attention.

Being very interested in signs and signals from the WoW (Wave of Wonder) I decided to research this part of my body. First, from Functional Integration lessons with Nancy Agnew, I knew that my internal body map has a shadow around this area. I would marvel at how clearly I could feel my feet except for the vague hollow spot at my left pinky toe. So lesser conscious awareness in that area left it vulnerable to wrenching.

Reflexology charts associate shoulder and ear with the little toe. And the bladder meridian runs there as well. Interestingly, most reflexology charts show little action around the left pinky toe- it’s the right one where all the meridians and points converge. Maybe there isn’t much going on out there…

I don’t think that is the message. A WordPress blog suggested that the left little toe had to do with trust – trusting yourself, trusting the whole WoW, trusting other people. OK, now we are on to something! Actually a violent wrenching really messes with one’s trust! And this was relatively minor. And there is something about not paying attention to the most salient cues in situations. Not watching out and WHAM! Hmmmm, this is feeling familiar.

Trude and I are listening to Eckhart Tolle and practicing presence. This toe message is the present you sometimes get when you are not in the present! Ha!

The Tower of Babble

My decade of birth (1950s) places me squarely in the first generation to have a steady, daily diet of other people’s stories. Take a moment to think about this idea. Human beings have always had a fascination with other people’s stories as witnessed by the tribal oral tradition and the presence of ritual and theatre in most every culture. Telling stories has been the way we preserve our knowledge, pass down traditions, reach out to and teach each other. And with today’s technology, the stories are told with light, sound, imagery, music, and words, all of which are created and ride on the fastest vibrations/oscillational cycles that we know. In the meantime, we sit – still, focused and absorbing and reflecting all of this vibration. Perhaps that is the deeper meaning embedded in Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted idea – “The medium is the message.” On a quantum level, vibration is the medium of everything. Everything we experience is, in essence, coming to us in packets of oscillating waves. These thoughts have me wondering about the impact of giving so much time and attention to the daily deluge of mediated stories. Just as we are waking up to the toxins in what we eat, are we waking up to the toxic vibrations in the stories we focus our attention upon? What types of stories do you focus your attention upon?

I was raised with television. My grandfather was an avid photographer and I have boxes of slides he took of his two oldest grandchildren, me and my brother, Brad. An innordinate number of slides are labeled “Judy and Brad watching TV”. Television was the distraction I could count on when my world went topsy-turvy, as worlds sometimes do. Our family was a pop culture family and our television was on all day, everyday. So I learned a lot about the world, people and relationships from television…

and movies!! As an adolescent, I loved movies! What a special treat it was to make a plan to go see a “moving picture story” with a friend. Or better still, gather the family together in the car and go to the drive-in! What was it about the drive-in? Drive-ins may have been my first taste of the surreal. Outside at night in a field of cars, in my pajamas, swinging on a playground set under a gigantic glowing screen teaming with big-heads having what seemed to be lives, their voices clamoring around me through hundreds of tinny speakers. They laughed, they fought, they acted in interesting and dramatic ways. Underneath it all, a little girl sits on a swing and wonders about having a life of her own.

Fast forward over fifty years later and I often think if my child self could have envisioned heaven, it would be NOW! The access to moving picture stories is astounding. The forms are myriad and we seem to be amazed and mesmorised by the sheer quantity of them. Think about all of the stories you encounter during one day of your life. The morning news shows, talk shows, tweets, Facebook posts, songs, reality shows, crime shows, lunchtime conversations, movies, documentaries, theatre, performance art, etc. While I have immensely enjoyed and employed the creative juice and opportunities this “world of the constant story” has to offer, it is becoming clear that too much Heaven can become a kind of Hell.

I often think that we live in the time of the Tower of Babel/Babble. For me, the Tower is a metaphor for all of our unique takes on “Truth” that are vorasciously asserted primarily through the many forms of media. Everybody gets to chime in for up to 140 characters or show up in an Instagram picture (worth a thousand words – seems like a better deal). Inside the Tower it is extremely loud and clamorous. When I spent a lot of time there, I felt confused, bemused, frequently powerless and angry, anxious, but always trying to put on a good face. There is a lot of drama in the Tower – that is the energy underneath the “babeling”. It is a crowded, edgy place always on the verge of or in the midst of outrage. Spending too much time there eventually will make a human being sick both emotionally and physically. Before that happens, though, it can be fun, funny, enlightening, compelling, educational and bigger than all of us. (Or so it seems.) Give it one piece of your attention and it takes you all in. And it is so much damn fun- we bond and build community around the next big thing, our honored legends, latest shows, favorite sports teams and political causes. There is actually quite a bit of love and connection there, too. I don’t want to throw it all away. What to do, what to do?

That is a good place to start – with some questions. Only recently have I appreciated the power of questions. As one who thoroughly enjoys “making meaning” out of my lived experiences, I have always been a fan of speculative conclusions. Discern and figure out what it is. This collapses the waveform and reduces potentialities. Now I am working with asking questions and waiting for the answers. This process takes patience and faith, both of which I have often lacked. What stories am I focusing my attention on? How do I feel when I focus on these stories? Do I ponder any aspect of the story after it has concluded? Does any aspect of the story stay with me as I move through my lived experience? How does remembering the story feel?

Pay close attention to reveries. While this is a bit like chasing one’s tail, because reveries overtake us in the moment, once I “wake up” from a reverie, I am left with a feeling. That is the moment to stop and focus on the breath and check in with my body. If the feeling is good, breath in and release with appreciation. If shoulders are tense, back or head aches, breathe in three full breaths. Use Emotional Freedom Technique and give voice to the feeling to encourage it to pass through and release. Sleep. Cry. We move so fast inside the Tower, we forget how to slow down and be with ourselves in healing.

Pay close attention ro the stories that you tell other people. This is the mirror of the premise that we love other people’s stories, and equally as vibrant. What is the first thing I would tell a stranger about myself? Why that? Why tell a stranger anything? Create space around the stories for questions like these: what picture am I painting of my world with this story? Who do I think I am?

And no matter who you may be, give the news media as little of your attention as you possibly can. The news and the people who shape the news stories are all in a big circus together. It is obvious when the most insightful news shows of our day are on Comedy Central, that the news has become a parody of itself. And in that parody, they jump up and down and fan the flames of ANY and ALL controversy. They discourage dialogue and make news when nothing is actually there. And many of us can not look away even when the stories are ridiculous or innane. This is the place to start- these are the easiest stories to shake loose. When I focus attention on a story in a mindless, surfing the web kind of way, before I click on it I ask, “Is this really important to me?” That usually stops me. Another good question: “Is this any of my business?” That one is full of baggage for most of us because there is much confusion about what is my business and what is NOT my business. It takes continuing reflection to discern this and most of us take as our business a whole lot more than we actually own. I have always thought the Serenity Prayer was about that very thing. I can easily change what is my business; it is a struggle, an uphill battle to change all that is NOT my business.

I am making a choice to disengage from the Tower as much as possible to maintain my health and well-being. I know not everyone is in a position to do that. Creating a good chunk of time with yourself in connection with something you love can provide reminders of a world where your body is healthy, your heart is full of love and your mind is still and open. That place is ALWAYS available to us, but can be obscured by the maelstorm around us when inside the Tower.

Awaken and heal-thy self! (as my friend Omar would say)