Composing with sounds that are ordinarily imperceptible or in some way absent

Interview with Caroline Devine composer and sound artist whose practice investigates the boundary between sound and music.

Caroline Devine. Image credit: Reid Photography

LxD: Thank you very much for agreeing to take part in this interview. Could you please introduce yourself to the reader with a short listening focused outline of you and your work.

My works explore voices, signals and sounds that are ordinarily imperceptible or in some way absent, such as VLF natural radio transmissions, solar and stellar resonances, the orbital periods of exoplanets, electromagnetic signals and hidden voices. I have a particular interest in the use of space as a compositional parameter and my site-specific sound installations include Perrott’s Folly – an 18th Century tower, MK Gallery’s lift, an outdoor parabolic dome structure, The Open University campus grounds and Alan Turing Hut 8 at Bletchley Park.

I began my compositional work with data on stellar resonances in 2011 by approaching Prof Bill Chaplin of the BiSON helioseismological research team at University of Birmingham. Throughout 2014, I was Leverhulme Artist in Residence with the Solar and Stellar Physics group in the School of Physics and Astronomy at University of Birmingham where I worked alongside scientists studying data on the natural resonances of stars from the NASA Kepler Mission.

My work 5 Minute Oscillations of the Sun was shortlisted for a BASCA British Composer award in 2013.


What does listening mean for you?

My listening depends upon the project or circumstance but generally speaking I am interested in listening to spaces and to the natural physical world - especially sounds and signals that are ordinarily imperceptible or ignored. I have made works with VLF (Very Low Frequency) electromagnetic signals, natural radio, solar and stellar resonances and the orbits of exoplanets (recently discovered planets that orbit distant stars). I have also made works that concern hidden voices, covert communications technology and the relationship between noise and power. I am interested in the use of space as an element of composition and the transformation and presentation of sounds or signals in unexpected contexts and dramatically altered in scale.

In what way does your work, research or practice involve listening?

My work usually develops from a period of research into a phenomenon or a concept as well as a period of listening. I am interested in naturally occurring radio signals in the VLF range and am a licensed radio amateur. I have a long-term fascination with string resonances and sine waves because of their potential for demonstrating and hearing physics. Sometimes, my motivation is to investigate the space itself - I have had the opportunity to work in the derelict buildings of Bletchley Park codebreaking centre, for example, and the work I made as a result of spending time in those spaces explored the secrecy and absence of sound that is at the heart of Bletchley Park. I develop site-specific works that exploit their surroundings as an inherent part of the compositional strategy - using an existing parabolic dome structure, for example, as a way to 'focus' sound. I recorded the resonances of lift wires for a sound installation called Earth Loop that was sited within a lift. Earth Loop considered the space articulated by the lift journey for a composition inspired by the idea of leaving man made electromagnetic hum behind on a journey through earth's atmosphere, mesosphere and ionosphere. As a traveller arrived at their destination on the top floor, they could experience audified VLF natural radio signals - presented free from man-made interference.

Caroline Devine, Block D, Bletchley Park. Image credit: Rachael Marshall

For the purposes of this interview I'm going to talk specifically about my work with stellar resonances. At the time that I began research into the solar and stellar data works back in 2011, I was making and listening to paired recordings and thinking about the potential of wires both as sources of acoustic sound but also as antennas. I was using a VLF receiver to pick up electromagnetic signals and thinking about how these signals provided a way to listen to the Sun and other space weather, and I began to wonder about other ways to listen to the Sun - perhaps acoustically in some way - which led me to find the work of the BiSON/HiROS research team (Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network/High Resolution Optical Spectroscopy). I approached the team in 2011 to find out more about their research and to ask whether I could use their data for a soundwork. Since then, I have made a number of works using BiSON, HiROS and NASA astronomical data and spent 2014 as Leverhulme Artist in Residence with the BiSON/HiROS research team in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Birmingham. 


What is it you hear in your research?

The natural physical world, physics, space, absence, interference, tonal relationships, temporal relationships. For me, listening to physics could mean listening to auditory information about space or time or tone - such as interference, beat frequencies, sum and difference tones but equally it could be listening to the effects of age on a voice.


Do you listen out for something particular, do you work with a pre-given set of auditory expectations and aims, or do you start defining aims from what you hear? 

I don't usually start with expectations - the works are a process of discovery. Having said that, with the asteroseismological pieces, working with the data over several years means I have a familiarity with certain aspects of the physics and this brings with it some expectations of certain intervals or relationships. With the solar and stellar data, I am exploring the tonal structure of stars and the Sun and the known orbits of newly discovered planets. Following my discovery of information about the research of the BiSON team on the web, I became aware that the team had data on these individual natural acoustic solar resonances. My work usually starts with listening, but this case was quite unusual in that I had seen a spectrogram of the tonal structure of the Sun on the BiSON website and was desperate to hear it. It was this overwhelming desire to hear the natural acoustic resonances of the Sun that compelled me to contact Prof Bill Chaplin, who heads the BiSON/HiROS research team. I asked whether it would be possible to allow me to have some of the data in order to sonify it and hear the information contained in the spectrogram for myself - I could 'read' the data from the image which gave information about the intervals, but turning the individual resonances to sound to hear them was a very exciting prospect for me. So in this case, I did set out with a very specific aim, which was literally to sonify, to hear and to diffuse, the overtone structure of the Sun.


How do you engage your audience in those aims? How do you want them to listen and what do you want them to hear?

I don't really concern myself so much with what the audience will hear in the work or how I want them to listen, but the installations are a way for me to understand something about sound and tonal relationships and resonance and time and a visitor might hear or feel those things too. For 5 Minute Oscillations of the Sun, produced in 2012 as an offsite project for MK Gallery, funded by Arts Council England, I was working exclusively with helioseismological data - from the Sun. I wanted to be able to inhabit or walk around within the overtone structure of the Sun - to present this overtone structure as a slowly evolving sonic palette, like strings of feedback that provide a way to physically experience the strange and poetic tonal relationships exposed by the data. I chose to site the work in an outdoor dome structure in public space where it could be chanced upon by a passer-by. I liked the idea of moving out of the light of the Sun and into its sound - like crossing a perceptual boundary. By the time I made Poetics of (Outer) Space, (2015) I had worked for some time with asteroseismological data on many stars that host newly discovered exoplanets. Again, I was interested in creating a physical experience of the tonal content within the data but I was also using the orbital periods of exoplanets to provide rhythms within the work and I was intrigued to find out what this would make evident about time. I applied certain rules through my methods of sonification, which I felt would help expose information about time within the work. I developed Poetics of (Outer) Space, site-specifically for Perrott’s Folly, an 18th century tower and I thought of the work as a ‘vertical composition’ that rose up through the tower. Once the work was realised, being inside the Folly and travelling through the piece provided for me a strange and new temporal experience that is difficult to describe - somehow ever-changing but strangely static at the same time.

Poetics of (Outer) Space, Caroline Devine

The process is more about a journey of discovery and my reaction to what I find. As I unravel the data certain aspects grab my attention - be they consonances or dissonances within different modes of oscillation or how rhythms collide, resonate or interfere with each other. Making the work is about drawing out these points of interest, unpicking them and then presenting my discoveries in audible form. Certainly, the installations are an attempt to be able to inhabit sound and walk around within it. I guess it might be appropriate to say that my works have been about finding and giving a platform to hidden voices in a way - whether those are human voices or the voices of stars…  letting spaces, signals or data speak.


Does the auditory material, the compositions, you produce contribute to a scientific or an artistic knowledge?

Well, the data was there - collected by the BiSON network or NASA mission - before I sonified it but it was not presented in audible form so my works do undoubtedly contribute to knowledge, however I would find it hard to say whether it is specifically scientific or artistic knowledge… perhaps auditory knowledge… perhaps something about our place in the universe and our relationship to resonance, consonance, dissonance, rhythm, orbits and time.


Could you describe the listening methodology, tools, technology, approaches etc. you employ in your work. How do you listen?

I am listening to new tonal relationships, I am listening for temporal relationships I have never heard before. I am fascinated to hear what is exposed by the data. The amount of data is enormous - overwhelming - and with so much data available, my approach is initially how to select it according to what I am interested to investigate and then how to structure the work to present the findings I have exposed in audible form. In the process of sonification I make choices and apply certain rules that dictate which data I select for the pieces and how I treat and present it. For example, with Poetics of (Outer) Space, which was presented in an eighteenth century tower, I thought of the work as a kind of ‘vertical composition’. I constructed the piece so that a visitor travelled upwards through higher frequencies as they climbed the tower, so that the number of exoplanets around each star increased on each floor of the piece and so that moving upwards through the piece also had an element of moving through astronomical time - with the stars increasing in age as they went up the tower. The youngest star with the fewest exoplanets was the first that a visitor encountered as they ascended and the oldest star with the most exoplanets was situated at the top. The star at the top was Kepler 444 - a recently discovered (at that time) but ancient star with five confirmed exoplanets. Working closely with the HiROS team throughout my Leverhulme residency meant that I benefited from the knowledge of scientists at the forefront of asteroseismological research - the research team published a paper in January 2015 that identified Kepler 444 and there was an alignment between the publication of the scientific discovery of Kepler 444 and the realisation of my work, Poetics of (Outer) Space in March 2015.


Do you use sound as a qualitative or a quantitative data: e.g. do you analyse the auditory material itself, your listening and the heard, or do you deal with its presentation as spectrogram, dB etc.? And do you make aesthetic or scientific decisions in how you use this material?

I sonify the data and then analyse and present what I have heard. As noted previously, my work with solar data for 5 Minute Oscillations of the Sun was unusual in that the very first thing I experienced of the BiSON data was a spectrogram published on a webpage that I was so strongly compelled to hear that I contacted the research team. If the information was there, I felt I needed to be able to hear it and if it didn't exist in audible form, then I wanted to sonify it for myself. My decision to sonify the solar data within the kilohertz range was based on my interest in microtonal composition as well as an aesthetically driven desire to hear these stellar frequencies within the fittingly sparkling kilohertz range.

Initially I analyse and select data and that is done very much with the physical space and the conceptual basis of the piece in mind - the two things - my choice of data and the concept/structure of the work - evolve simultaneously according to what I discover as I unpick the scientific information. For me there is poetry about the stellar resonances and the orbital periods - and it is that which I wish to consider and present within my works - but at the same time it's important for me to retain integrity with the science.


Do you combine the heard, the auditory information gained with other materials, images, numerical data etc in the process of analyses and evaluation?

I have presented spectrograms of the works but just as an accompaniment to the pieces - for programme notes for example or during talks - not as part of the piece itself. The works are purely about the auditory experience within the space. I document the pieces but I don't promote the documentation as my work. The works are about that particular event - in that specific space and at that particular time.

Oscillate, Caroline Devine (2012)

How do you think sound and listening can contribute to the understanding and responding to current, socio-political, geographical and ecological issues?

There is a whole list of interesting dialectics surrounding the relationship between noise and power that includes; surveillance, silence/noise as a political weapon or as a tool of the state, loudness wars, homogenisation of culture. Composition that invites intellectual engagement is inherently political. Active listening and the consideration of hidden voices as well as those who are eavesdropping can create a dialogue that includes the other, the displaced and the dispossessed as well as the privileged.


Have you written/produced or could you refer us to any reference texts, works or other material that you would like to tell the reader about, and for our reference section?

Poetics of (Outer) Space, Caroline Devine (2015)

Auditory Display: Sonification, Audification and Auditory Interfaces - Gregory Kramer

The Sonification Handbook - Thomas Hermann, Andy Hunt, John G Neuhoff

Recording Contract Recordings, Caroline Devine (2011). Image credit: Andy Keate