Monthnotes: April 2024

Monthnotes: April 2024

Hello friends. My name is Duncan, and you're reading "Hello From Duncan" - a monthly newsletter collating my recent creative input and output. It is and always will be free, and you're only getting it because you signed up for it. Unsubscribe at any time with the link in the footer.

Biggest news of the last month from me is the release of a new episode of my Loud Numbers data sonification podcast - the first since 2021!

Hold the Line is a sonification of forest fire data from Canada's record-breaking 2023 season. While fires are a natural part of the Canadian forest ecosystem, a combination of climate change and decades of short-signed forest management policy led in 2023 to an apocalyptic fire season - with a full five percent of the country's forests reduced to ash.

Every single fire that was reported by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fires Centre between 1 April and 30 November is represented by a click sound, with each real-world day playing out over 2.5 seconds of sound. A bass note drops at the start of each new day.

Fires started by humans are represented by the distinctive ‘ting’ sound of a Zippo lighter, fires that started naturally by the sound of wood crackling (which sounds like a high click), and fires of unknown cause by a generic ignition sound (which sounds like a low-pitched lighter flicking on). During the worst of the season, you’ll hear more than 220 fires in a single day.

The background rumble represents the area of forest that burned that day. The larger the area burned that day, the louder, harsher and longer-lasting the sound. When many large fires burn for days, the rumbles blend into a roar. You’ll also hear a growing stack of musical notes that represent the cumulative area that has been burnt. As more forest is burned over time, more notes are added to the stack.

Finally, you’ll hear the voice of Fern Yip. Fern runs the Earthkin Wilderness School in the forests of British Columbia, and narrates the passing of each month — describing her experiences of fire during that season.

You can listen to the 22-minute podcast episode, which includes an interview with Fern about fighting off a wildfire encroaching on her property as well as a version of the above with audio samples. Find it on your favourite podcast platform by searching for "Loud Numbers".

Hold the Line — Loud Numbers

You can also just listen to the track without the introduction - it's on Bandcamp, as well as all good streaming services. Again, search for "Loud Numbers" and you should find it.

Hold The Line, by Loud Numbers
track by Loud Numbers

Thanks so much to Jeremy Singer-Vine, of Data is Plural, for collaborating with us on this episode!

In other sonification news, the live performance that I mentioned last time, where I'm turning data from a huge 1859 solar storm into a maelstrom of post-rock guitar and electronics, has expanded into three performances!

The first performance was a couple of days ago - at a small private show here in Malmö. It went great - the room that I was playing in had a lot more bass than the headphones that I've been practicing on, but I'd factored that in in advance, adding a low-frequency sine wave component that shook the room and everyone in it when the storm reached its peak. It went down well, I got some lovely feedback from people in the room.

The next performance will be at STPLN, in Malmö, at 4pm on Saturday 20 April. I'll be playing a support slot during the release party for Paul Khadra's new collection of soundscapes developed out of field recordings, titled "Ethereal - a Skåne Sonic Expedition". It's a public event, with a 100kr entrance fee.

Finally, for those of you who can't make it to Malmö, I'll be performing the Carrington Event sonification at the next Blue Moon Triptych event, which will be streamed live on Twitch on 27 April 2024. I'm one of three performers, but I think I'll be going first - it begins at 7pm Malmö time, 6pm London, 1pm New York, and 10am Seattle.

blue moon triptych concert (next: apr 27)
Please note the start time !! it’s gonna be great show 🥳

If you can't make any of those, then I'll eventually be putting together a recording of the piece and releasing it in collaboration with St. Silva (a.k.a. Ben Dexter-Cooley), who's also developed a sonification of the same dataset. Look out for more details on that in due course.

To celebrate the shows, and lean into what I'm enjoying spending time on lately, I treated myself to a fancy second-hand guitar. It's a black 2018 Fender Jazzmaster, which has been modded into a "Jazzblaster" configuration by adding a pair of humbuckers and a new bridge, and removing almost all of the electronics except the pickup selector switch and the volume knob.

It's a wonderful instrument - I've only ever really played fairly cheap guitars in the past, and this midrange model feels like a huge step up in terms of comfort and playability. My clumsy bass-playing fingers are getting used to the six strings, and lots of practice for the performances has got me to a place where I'm juuuust about overcoming the impostor syndrome involved in playing it in public.

I'm not totally in love with the red tortoiseshell pickguard it came with, and so I've hatched plans to replace it with a black one (if only so it matches my black-on-black Squier P-bass). That's probably going to mean restoring the original circuitry and maybe the original pickups too (so I don't leave a bunch of holes in the new black pickguard), so I'm a little unsure, but I'll make a decision after all my shows are done.

The other day I went to a great workshop from Lil Data about - a live coding platform for music, based on Tidalcycles but operating entirely in the browser.

Strudel REPL
Strudel is a music live coding environment for the browser, porting the TidalCycles pattern language to JavaScript.

It's neat! You can just write sound("bd bd sd bd") and you've got yourself a Motorik beat. Speed it up by adding .cpm(80) on the end.

Try it yourself - go to this link, hit the "play" button in the top bar and marvel at what can be done with just eight lines of code. Change some numbers and hit the "update" button and see what happens.

It's super fun, very expressive, and I'm looking forward to putting it through its paces in combination with my data mapper tool to very quickly sketch sonifications out of almost anything.

Otherwise, life is just kinda continuing. I'm still playing No Man's Sky on the Switch. I'm still watching someone play through FFVII Rebirth. I'm still reading The Dawn of Everything, and still listening to the Empire podcast. I'm still going to lots of great workshops at STPLN. I'm very excited to be seeing Yard Act play in Copenhagen on Friday.

That's more or less it, though. What are you up to? Hit reply and let me know!