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Turning Light into Sound with Wayne Grim and the Kronos Quartet

Turning Light into Sound with Wayne Grim and the Kronos Quartet

When the moon passes between Earth and the sun on August 21, the first total solar eclipse visible from the continental United States in 38 years, there will be nothing to hear—just the silence of three celestial objects briefly aligning, then continuing on their way. To Exploratorium composer Wayne Grim, however, that silent passing is an opportunity to make music unlike any other.

As the eclipse begins, so will Grim’s sonification of it. A sonification is a conversion of data into sound, where changes in the data are reflected in what the listener hears. In some cases, sonification is used to convey information, like an auditory altimeter that makes different sounds as a skydiver falls closer to the ground. Grim’s sonification will be an auditory work of art—a musical composition created in real time using data streamed from Exploratorium video crews as they film the eclipse in Oregon and Wyoming.

Composer Wayne Grim makes naturally occurring data into music.

Grim began experimenting with sonifications of data gathered here on Earth, within a stone’s throw of the Exploratorium: traffic patterns on the Embarcadero and the motion of a wobbly pylon in the Bay. By preassigning a note or sound to every possible data value and running the data through a software program, he could produce a musical representation of each phenomenon, with melodies and harmonies determined by the data. “I liked the unpredictability of it,” he says, and it appeared others did, too—the sonifications he posted online started picking up lots of views and comments from viewers. He’s since moved on to celestial things; you can listen to his sonifications of the 2012 transit of Venus and the 2016 total solar eclipse livestreamed from Woleai, Micronesia.

For this year’s eclipse, he’s taking it a step further: instead of a laptop converting and playing the music in real time according to his algorithm, the world-famous Kronos Quartet will play the sonification as a semi-improvised composition.

Composing for a group of live master musicians is, of course, totally different from preprogramming data values into a laptop and seeing what comes out. “Kronos is unparalleled,” says Grim. “They work together in such a fine-tuned way, they could play just a single note and make it beautiful.” To keep things organized and give the Kronos musicians a reference, Grim has written nearly half of the piece in advance, using samples preperformed by Kronos and a scoring system that looks nothing like a traditional symphonic score. Instead of telling the musicians exactly which notes to play and when, it lays out his intended structure and aligns it with the progression of the eclipse.

Grim’s score for the sonification doesn’t look like a traditional musical score, but it connects the piece to the progress of the eclipse.

That leaves  more than half of the composition to be worked out by the musicians in the moment—and as any improviser knows, creative freedom often goes hand-in-hand with a bit of structure. The piece is divided into three separate movements based on the progress of the eclipse: totality and the periods before and after it, where the moon partially blocks the sun, with a different sound profile for each movement. Grim has divided the composition into 23 “cells,” or short arrangements of notes, each of which must be repeated a certain number of times during the composition. The melody and harmonies of the piece are determined by the order in which the cells are played—which is up to the musicians to improvise. “I’m trying for something that follows an arc other than light-dark-light,” says Grim. “It gets much more interesting when I’m not completely directing everything.”

Kronos will have a click track to keep their tempo consistent and a screen on which to watch the eclipse progress as they play. In addition, each time a cell is repeated, it can be different: though the pitches remain the same, they lack the shape cues that tell the musicians what kind of rhythm they stand for. It will be up to the musicians to determine their rhythms and make them into notes.

On the morning of August 21, when the eclipse begins and the Kronos Quartet begins to play, the unpredictability that Grim loves so much will be in full effect. There may be technical difficulties or cloudy weather preventing a clear view of the eclipse—but even if not, the sonification piece will be something entirely unique, created in the moment and shaped by the progression of the eclipse itself. To hear the Kronos performance of Grim’s sonification, tune in to the Exploratorium's eclipse website or our free Total Solar Eclipse app on the morning of the eclipse.