During my PhD studies, I was introduced to computer programming and I had been using ebird for almost 10 years. I have always been interested in music.
Unfortunately, by the end of my studies, I had seen my share of racism (“It’s a F*$<ing African American!” and Anchor baby), and had some really difficult important conversations. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work, though I had done some cool stuff on the way, I was definitely in need of some mindful work. I wanted to do some art that connected my scientific work together in a way that also showed the copious amount of planning and processing that went into it.
I started thinking of what art was.
As a biologist, I recognize all perception and art as stimuli and stimuli are all signals over space and time.
The colors we see are differing values of light.
The forms we see are all dimensions in space arranged in relation to one another.
That means each drum kick or note on the piano was a signal that could be described numerically.
That meant if I could write a program that would make a tone for different values, I could write music in R. I eventually did it. I assigned each day to one second and assigned a different number (sound wave frequency) to each bird. I played eBird data. it was horrible. It sound like a fax machine was calling and angry that you did not pick up.
but then, I found Earsketch and realized that I could make the music a little less robotic this time using the python language. The first experiment was to use actual bird song. The signals I used were birdwatching effort by four Bahamian #birdwatchers I looked up to. Erika, Martha, Linda and Bruce, were the most active birdwatchers on Grand Bahama Island which I was studying for my dissertation. I used their birdwatching effort as an all or nothing signal. If they went birdwatching, their “music” played, if they stopped, the music stopped. I compressed three months of 2016 into about 5 minutes. I assigned each of them a track of birdsong clipped from the recordings of Bahamian birds I got through BirdsCaribbean.
Listen to the track on Soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/lenito81/ebird-jan-mar-2016-for-loop
It sounded interesting and I could hear the breaks in the data, the lack of information became seriously tangible. Of course it was strange to hear birds and hear them go silent. This also meant that a blind student could hear the data like never before. There is something visceral about it, but the cacophony for me when everyone went birdwatching was not so appealing. So I started thinking of what would be the best music to use.
I tried Gospel. you can listen to that here.
But then I thought, these birdwatchers are around their sixties and have been birdwatching for decades. There must be a more appropriate type of music. So… dubstep.
The “Watcher dubstep” was born. and you can listen to that on soundcloud here. https://soundcloud.com/lenito81/watcherdubstep2016emlb
I thought it was awesome. You could rock out and use the ebird data to listen to the sounds of birdwatching activity and the distribution of effort over time. The apprehension and suspense really got me. When you enter a silent space, which birder will come back first? how long before they come back?
It was awesome.
However, it was not yet complete. One day I ended up talking to a friend and musician/dancer/attorney Black Soultan we got into talking about music and the “let me show ya something” part of the discussion. I shared the Watcher Dubstep and he held onto it for a few days.
What he brought back was a remix I never could have concocted, and it was amazing. So, I collected some photos and video from Blue Lagoon Island featuring the birds there. and I made this video. I hope you like it.
Of course, that is cool, but I did not stop there.
I proposed a talk for the BirdsCaribbean regional meeting in Guadeloupe. Kashta Eneas got his first citation in a scientific proceedings report and I got to see about a hundred bird enthusiasts, ornithologists and students raise the roof to what I believe is the first dubstep remix made using R, Python and eBird data.
What did you think of it?