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Making Music out of Mountains

Image credit: Eon Sounds
Image credit: Eon Sounds
Image credit: Eonsounds

Before the advent of humanity, the Earth was a lifeless and unstable mass. Oceans formed, volcanoes exploded, mountains grew, meteorites crashed on the surface. Across billions of years, the planet experienced the long and gradual process of geological development. Can the story of the Earth’s geological history be told via the medium of music?

The Eonsounds project is the result of an exchange of emails between the composer James Cave and geologist Dr. Tim Ivanic. Ivanic proposed to Cave that Geology could in some way be translated into music. Assembling a team of geologists and technicians, they began a project investigating the ‘music of mountains’ and how it could be produced.

Pop music singles tend to last three or four minutes. Classical music can last anywhere between a minute or two, for example Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ or Kabalevsky’s ‘Comedian’s Gallop’, to hour-long concertos and suites. These lengths of time seem immeasurably small in comparison to the millions of years it takes for geological events to start and finish, let alone in comparison to the age of the Earth, something that is at least four billion years old. The challenge for the Eonsounds team has been to make music that represents some billion years of geological history without making a song that lasts the same amount of time.

Numerous geological developments have occurred across the history of the planet. Speaking to a small crowd on a brilliant summer day, Dr. Ivanic drew out a chalk pathway in the courtyard of King’s Manor and illustrated some highlights with Cave acting as a human pointer. At the beginning of time, the Earth formed, likely gaining the Moon after a collision between Earth and another small planet. Across one billion years of history, the Earth was an uninhabitable place of volcanic eruptions and meteorite crashes. It was only half a billion years ago that complex cellular organisms began to form. Human history seems pretty pathetic compared to the totality of the planet’s history.

The team displayed their first piece, using a background drone composed by Daniel Patrick Quinn. Playing steadily from the speakers was a continuous sound, a clean major cadence. Using two-dimensional scans of crystal structures, Cave and his assistant improvised a melody above the background ostinato. First single notes, then patterns, then chains of notes, some in harmony and others clashing. It was strange at first to see them singing to the sound of Earth’s geology, but as the melodies progressed it was reminiscent of serene choral music.

Making music out of mountains is a new form of music in development today. Musicians can make music at their command, striking their drums, blowing through their piccolos and so on. However, the results of a Perth artist’s project depended on the chance of wind that day. The artist attached kilometre-long wires between rocks and recorded the sound of the wind rushing through. Nature determined the volume and rhythm of his compositions.

Music can of course be constructed electronically, as many of today’s pop musicians know all too well. The Eonsounds team use a process known as data sonification to imagine their data by way of sound. Gathering their findings relating to geological formation, they express their raw data mathematically, translating it into musical notation. Eventually this sound can be realised through the noises of a musical instrument, for example a piano. Data sonification is often used in a medical circles when sound produces a more comprehensible understanding of medical trauma than a video or image.

A challenge for Eonsounds was to decide on how particular forms of rock and mineral should be portrayed. A piano, a cornet and a flute can all play a C# (C-sharp) note simultaneously, but each produces a different sound. No two minerals are the same, varying in texture and construction on the molecular level. Some minerals are heavy, others light; some are abundant across the other, others rare and precious. Eonsounds therefore must choose which instrument, be it a clarinet, a violin or a bassoon, they feel best suits granite, limestone, chalk and so on.

Some geologists believe that we are in a new geological era, beginning around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Humanity, for good reasons and bad, has destroyed much of the natural environment across time. Would a symphony depicting the geological lifetime of the planet end with a drum solo, or even a cymbal crash? Maybe, reckons Cave, but only songs about that kind of environmental change. There is plenty of music to make from crystallisation, rock formation, continents and more. Eonsounds have plenty of material to use for the rest of their album.

This article was written following an exhibition / workshop given by Dr. Jude Brereton, James Cave and Dr. Tim Ivanic, ‘Making Music out of Mountains’, as part of the 2016 Festival of Ideas. You can read more about Eonsounds at the project’s website, found here.