Music of the Spheres – A Conversation with Dan Tapper

Dan Tapper is a British artist based in Toronto that combines his interest in code and celestial form. In the past he has mapped sonic geographies, created documentaries about Very Low Frequency (VLF) sound, and explored the poetry of code. This past August CAN attended Turbulent Forms an exhibition at the Canadian Music Centre that presenting Tapper’s visualizations of cosmic phenomena. Alongside these artworks there was a performance, presenting the artist alongside several composers – all of them playing sonifications or comsmic data inflected techno and electroacoustic compositions. The presentation of this work was the culmination of an interdisciplinary workshop in which Tapper shared his research and methods with composers and artists including Allison Cameron, Bekah Simms, and Mehrnaz Rohbaksh; the results were all over the place, but the aesthetics across the project’s many outputs suggested potential. We left with the sense Tapper had struck a vein and the event boldly underscored what was surely a viable multi-year research project.

In the interest of shining a light on Tapper’s research we engaged in an extended conversation with the artist. In this exchange he describes the origins of his interest in cosmology, touches on questions of fidelity and representation when working with data, and describes how he ‘workshopped’ his research methods to invite other artists into the fold.

↑ Mergers and acquisitions: Gravity Wave – process 27 simulates and visualizes the collision of two black holes – first predicted by physicists like Oliver Heaviside, Henri Poincaré and Albert Einstein, these collisions were only recently confirmed by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)

Having chatted several times over the last few years I know you are endlessly fascinated with cosmology. How did that idle interest transform into a mode of artistic inquiry?

I have always been interested in space and physics – this began as a child through consuming popular science materials – books, BBC documentaries like Horizon and inventing far out theories of my own. This interest grew with my sound art practice and research into Very Low Frequency (VLF) natural radio where I recorded electromagnetic sounds produced by the earth’s ionosphere such as lightning strikes and the northern lights, incorporating these sounds as processed and raw material into my work. The devices I used to record VLF consisted of DIY antennas made of large coils of wire and simple receiver and amplifier circuits. These antennas are in essence very low-fi radio telescopes and this link to electromagnetic sounds in space outside of the ionosphere kickstarted a deeper exploration into space through sound, data, image and imagination with the desire to create immersive and thought provoking experiences.

An early work combining these areas is Heliosphere which uses a variety of data sources and processing techniques to create an audio-visual journey from the surface of the sun to the outer edges of its influence. This included working with electromagnetic recordings of the sun, creating sonifications and visualisations of planetary orbits, using pulsar information to control LFOs and creating a physical model Heliosphere which was used as a resonating device – the piece reflected the various sections of the heliosphere. A key theme of the piece was to look at how data is used by researchers and organisations and how this information can be stretched and used creatively – this theme of stretching how far data can be manipulated before ceasing to be relevant to the source has been an ongoing interest in my subsequent work.

Another early work is Hyper Nebulas which uses micro scale movements of a sand crab colony simulation to create macro cosmic nebula style artworks. The interest for me here was the use of simple rule sets occurring in nature and how these could translate over a number of scales – from tiny sand crabs to interstellar clouds of dust. Heliosphere and Hyper Nebulas are good examples of how the incorporation of cosmology into my work has progressed, drawing from data and imagination to create pieces that contain a direct and conceptual link to the source material and act as immersive and illustrative experiences.

The pieces in Turbulent Forms, 2017 take my work further into this territory, drawing heavily from research and data driven design to create visualisations and sonifications of data from space, these pieces all interconnect in some way – even though each visual output and source information is different – through lighting and gallery layout I have attempted to design a space separate from the everyday where an imagined cosmology can be experienced.

Across the Turbulent Forms project you have produced visualizations and sonifications of the cosmic microwave background, gravity waves, and sunspots. Can you talk a little bit about how each of these phenomena serve as muse and as data?

I started Turbulent Forms with a large list of possible data sources, this included data sets such as: near earth comets, planetary orbits and chaos theory. From my visits to the Canadian Music Centre where the exhibition would take place I had decided that the most powerful layout for the space would be three large scale print works and a full room audio-visual installation. This meant that I needed to shorten and refine my list to find the four data sets that I was most excited about working with in terms of the subject matter, format of data and creative possibilities for sound and visual work. The four data sets I chose for Turbulent Forms are each very different but connected with me on a deep level, inspiring a number of different ideas in how to develop work that poetically represented the underlying data.

The data sets I chose were:

  • Sunspots occurring between 1991–2017
  • Gravity waves, sonifications and data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)
  • Cosmic Microwave Background data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP)
  • Supernovae recorded between 1885–2017 (and four earlier galactic supernovae years: 1006, 1054, 1572, 1604)

I chose different methods of working with and processing the data for each piece, to highlight the source data and underlying scientific concepts. For example A History of the Universe in Noise creates an analogy between the loss of information from the Big Bang into the low level cosmic microwave background by using a process called generation loss where source information is lost and degraded through repeat copying. Other pieces such as Solar Maximum work more closely with data sets, creating a visualisation of the number of sunspots and sunspot magnitudes logged by month – this quantitative visualisation is then used to control a particle system that pushes and pulls particles to create pathways focused around points of high magnitude sunspots and solar maximums.

↑ Sonogram of sunspot sonification (left) and Sunspots of my Life, a sunspot data visualisation before particle system, 1991 – 2017

My goal for each piece was to create an experience that linked the viewer to the source information of each work and allowed them to view the piece as a work of immersive visual art or dive deeper into the underlying source. It was important for me to have a learning process and be inspired by each data set I was using so I could effectively communicate this information and creative vision to an audience.

Could you talk through the conception and execution of one of the visualisations and data analyses in more detail?

Solar Maximum is the most directly personal of the pieces in Turbulent Forms, it mixes quantitative and abstract visualisation methods to map all the sunspots recorded in my lifetime (January, 1991–August, 2017) I used information recorded by Sunspot Index and Long-Term Solar Observations (SILSO) these observations record the number of sunspots that occur over months, days and years. The visualisation comprises of a grid of circles representing regular monthly time intervals of sunspot data, the circles magnitudes are controlled by the number of sunspots recorded over each month. This simple quantitative visualisation is used to control a particle system modelled on magnetic repulsion and attraction, each circle has a push/pull force based on its magnitude – areas with high magnitude sunspots or a number of high magnitude sunspots attract more particles creating an abstract map reminiscent of magnetic fields and topographical charts over the sunspot data. Something that struck me when working with this sunspot data is how clear the 11 year cycles of solar maximum (highest concentrations of sunspots) appear in even a simple data visualisation or graph.

While some of your data is a bit esoteric, the LIGO revelation captivated the world’s imagination and the researchers at the helm of that project were just awarded the Nobel prize. Presumably you were dialed into that scientific drama as it unfolded?

The observations of gravitational waves by LIGO in 2015 coincided very fortuitously with my growing interest in data and the evolution in my work away from VLF and ionospheric data to information from space. I had been working on a VLF documentary project called Some Call it Noise – my research for the project lead me to the NASA sound archives – and this was the first time when deeply engaged with sonified material from space. I had been aware of the search for gravitational waves for a couple of years and aside from being hugely excited at the discovery, I found it fascinating to see how information was distributed via sonified data and visualisation. I was particularly interested in the many articles that sensationalised the sound recordings and often represented the data sonifications as acoustically possible recordings. This presentation of the sonified LIGO recordings really made me think about how data is used as an illustrative tool and can be shaped to highlight a specific activity or agenda. Based on this I have used the idea of stretching data far away from its original source while still referencing it in projects like Heliosphere to highlight the creative involvement that is always present when working with and shaping data. In Turbulent Forms I use gravitational wave information to create a piece that is drawn from data and imagination, inspired by the massive forces rending space time.

Gravity Waves creates a simulation of two orbiting black holes that eventually collide, the system was inspired by research undertaken at LIGO and simulations distributed by space organisation such as NASA. I incorporated distortion into the system derived from sonifications of colliding black holes released by LIGO. The gravity wave simulation connects the orbiting bodies via coloured lines determined by a proximity threshold – weak connections highlighted in blue and strong connections highlighted in yellow. The released gravitational wave energy is highlighted in purple. Its sound composition is created using software that plots the path of each simulated black holes orbit and applies this to a set of sounds controlling, volume, playback speed and probability. The audio output is used as source material for a composed work, this work also combines manipulated sonifications of black holes colliding and simple sine wave sonifications.

The artistic intention of this piece was to use my research and gathered source data as a starting place to create a detailed conceptual illustration of huge forces orbiting, creating chaotic motions and releasing huge amounts of energy.

Turbulent Forms’ second iteration was recently manifested through a collaboration with the Canadian Music Centre. Could you talk about the workshop you ran and detail the resulting collaborations with artists and composers?

I wanted to use the research and development I had used in my creative process whilst developing Turbulent Forms as a lens to inspire and encourage artists and composers to interact with ideas of abstract data, space, chaos, generative art and rule based systems as an additional toolset/vocabulary that would be able to add to their own creative practice.

I chose three artists and composers each with very different styles and skillsets to take part in a workshop, this workshop was designed to showcase the work, ideas and tools I had been working with and developing for Turbulent Forms and engage the participants in how to apply these systems and tools to create a new piece of work. The artists and composers involved were: Allison Cameron, Bekah Simms and Mehrnaz Rohbaksh and the pieces ranged from composed acousmatic works, improvised material, recordings gathered from NASA archives and pencil drawings of graphs and sonograms.

The workshop began with a collective improvisation using a simple piece of software I had written to generate modulated sine tones of various pitches and an accompanying rule based score. The idea was to collectively simulate motions of bodies being pulled into the influence of a black hole – the improvisation acted as an icebreaker and happened for about a ten minute period. I then spent a session explaining the work and methodologies I had developed for each of the works in the show and showed visual and audio examples. After this presentation of work I spent a period detailing the software tools I had built and how these could be used creatively to generate material. These sessions were followed by a group improvisation with feedback loops and a prepared piano (these recordings were later manipulated for the piece A History of the Universe in Noise and were also used in an improvised work by Allison Cameron called Sea Tomatoes, presented during the NOVA concert as part of Turbulent Forms). The final part of the workshop was spent developing individual pieces which were later taken away and further developed for the NOVA concert on August 8th.

I had different relationships with each artist and piece – I gave each participant the opportunity for my assistance outside of the workshop – for feedback, to aid with the development of software based tools, and recording and production guidance. The piece that I felt a particular connection with in this respect was Bekah Simms’ String Theory, where I was able to assist in creating a dynamic mix with movement occurring within a stereo space. For Allison Cameron’s piece Sea Tomatoes I was asked to engage with Cameron’s processed recordings of prepared piano as an improviser providing accompanying ambient and tonal material – the improvisation in the show also included Cameron improvising using an early Cracklebox from STEIM in the Netherlands. Mehrnaz Rohbaksh’s piece was largely developed after the workshop – in the workshop period she experimented with SPEAR (Sinusoidal Partial Editing Analysis and Resythesis) and a few of my software tools, the finished piece was a fixed period audio work made from looped and manipulated NASA recordings.

I was pleased with the success of the workshop and how each artist was able to hone in on a specific methodological element of Turbulent Forms and develop it into a fully realised piece. I plan on teaching more Turbulent Forms workshops in the future – opening up the format to larger workshops were members of the artistic community and the public can take part – I would also like to develop a version of this workshop to teach at schools, I think that the combination of using physical data, creativity and abstract thinking to create a piece of work gives students a strong skillset that aids with creative problem solving, thinking strategies and software development.

Project Page | Turbulent Forms Publication | Dan Tapper


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