Four violins, four stations, twelve beats | Polarjournal

Physicist Hiroto Nagai composes music using environmental data from the polar regions.

In Cell on April 18, Japanese geophysicist Hiroto Nagai, from Rissho University, describes his experience of composing String Quartet No. 1 Polar Energy Budget. He is trying to give the public another, more emotional, entry point to scientific graphs and curves, through music. “It captures the audience’s attention forcefully, whereas graphic representations require a more active and conscious interpretation,” he writes. His work remains highly dependent on physical data, however, as part of a scientific approach. Temperature, rainfall, cloud cover and solar radiation fluctuate over the course of the score. These parameters were measured in four locations at the North and South Poles. The span measurements beat 12 times, like the months of a year. Over the course of the seasons between 1982 and 2022, the poles overlap; summer and winter on either side of the globe. It’s a challenge from a harmonic point of view. “Ludovico Einaudi, who wrote the music for Intouchable, went to play at the foot of the melting glaciers, concentrating on touching harmonics”, notes Sébastien Damiani, a virtuoso pianist and film music composer who regularly collaborates with the group IAM. “Everyone at their own level has composed something totally different, and with Hiroto Nagai, it sounds very contemporary.”

A pure ‘sonification’ of the data would have been to assign a score for each value of the four environmental parameters, but Hiroto Nagai has gone further. He took the liberty of arranging the sound piece by assigning sequences of notes to four instruments: two violins, a viola and a cello. To give the sound a narrative aspect, he also took the liberty of working on the rhythm and alternating sequences of tension followed by resolution. The geographical spaces (two Japanese research stations in the Antarctic, a satellite antenna base in Svalbard and an ice drill in Greenland) are gradually introduced. The composer played on the techniques used by violinists to attack the strings with pizzicatos and stacattos. Playing on the texture of the sound is a trick, but it is difficult for him to make real musical choices. Even if he tried a few harmonic progressions, he was limited by the shape of the data. The piece uses all the notes of the chromatic scale, and the result is reminiscent of certain tonalities in contemporary classical music.

“So far, there haven’t been published attempts and open discussion on sonification-based music composition, nor attempts to demonstrate the methodology required to intentionally affect the audience’s emotions with an artistic piece.” he explains in a press release. “I strongly hope that this manuscript marks a significant turning point, transitioning from an era where only scientists handle data to one where artists can freely leverage data to craft their works.” One question persists within this experiment. Why not work with a composer, so that science and music can organise their compromises to tell the story of the poles?

Camille Lin, PolarJournal AG

Link to the study : Nagai, H., 2024. String Quartet No. 1 “Polar Energy Budget” – Music composition using Earth observation data of polar regions. iScience 0.

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