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Can you hear the Earth breathing?

Performance (35 min)

ACUD Macht Neu
Berlin School of Sound



Conception, recording, production, performance

Steve Williams/drusnoise




Berlin, DE


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Data Artist

Lisa Knolle

Video Recording

Steve Burnside/alive BLN

‘Can you hear the Earth breathing?’ brings to life sustainability cycles and the natural (and un-natural) systems that lie beneath the production and absorption of carbon dioxide. In the 1950s, Charles Keeling started measuring CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere at the Moana Loa Observatory. These measurements showed for the first time how the planet itself is breathing as forests in the Northern hemisphere grow leaves in the Spring absorbing CO2, then release it back into the atmosphere in the Fall when leaves drop off the trees.

This performance includes both sonified data representing different elements of the CO2 system along with field recordings. Sounds are performed with modular synthesizers, samplers, biofeedback pads connected to plants, FX pedals, and looping feedback. The sound performance is supplemented with video that mixes footage of CO2 sources and sinks, “technical” slides and screenshots that illustrate the scaffolding and “disclose” the behind the scenes data, sonification, and sonic choices made, and video that shows changes over time such as time lapse video of a forest changing over a year and CO2 data animations.

The core of this work is work is grounded in the concept of disclosure - taking the sounds that are taken for granted and making them focus of attention.  Lacey notes that this approach “reveals the complexity of the urban environment, which is typically hidden by the dominating sounds of the everyday” (2017, p. 166). And further that “disclosure is the approach that demonstrates the soundscape always exceeds perceptive capacity, and that beyond the dominant affective forces that shape everyday experience, there are hidden qualities waiting to be revealed” (ibid). These qualities are also hidden inside soundscape recordings and especially in sonification. Choices are made about how and when to record, how to edit into a piece, what processing and effects are applied, how “raw” data is turned into pitch, gate, velocity, timbre and which instruments are employed to play back the sounds.

Disclosure also applies to the methods used to plan, prepare, and perform this work. Here I present the system elements (i.e. primary components of natural systems that produce and absorb CO2), sources of data used for sonification, sound and field recording sources. In addition, I detail sound processing (including choices made for sonification) and playback instruments. In addition, I describe tools and processes used to harness/employ/highlight feedback processes between system elements and sound. Note that there are feedback loops and implications within recording, processing, and playback too. These choices are be illustrated with video, screenshots, and screen captures that show the process of data download and manipulation, exporting to MIDI, importing into Ableton, sound design, and processing. Each of these processes contain choices that influence the sound that is heard by the audience.

Conception, recording, production, performance: Steve Williams/drusnoise

Data artist: Lisa Knolle (@lets.learn.machines)

Data source:  C. D. Keeling, S. C. Piper, R. B. Bacastow, M. Wahlen, T. P. Whorf, M. Heimann, and H. A. Meijer, Exchanges of atmospheric CO2 and 13CO2 with the terrestrial biosphere and oceans from 1978 to 2000. I. Global aspects, SIO Reference Series, No. 01-06, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, 88 pages, 2001.

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