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Patterns of movement: landscapes, data + sound

by Tara Rodgers

[mp3j track=”http://fembotcollective.org/laundrycontrib/wnss1.mp3″]

Since 2005, I have worked with SuperCollider, an open-source programming language for audio synthesis, to create experimental music and sound art. Many of my projects employ data sonification techniques (conversions of data from diverse sources into sound) and generative compositional structures (which are open-ended in form and/or duration). I also work with translations between sound, photography, and video, where the parameters of one medium shape those of another.[1]

SuperCollider is a vast environment that can have a steep learning curve. Yet, I liked it from the start because it is relatively easy (even addictive) to make and adjust sounds right away.[2] I also enjoy that SuperCollider is, literally, a language–a language that you can make your own through descriptive terms and objects that can function as metaphors for various things in the world. This has been my primary interest in recent projects. In representations of landscapes, weather events, and migration flows, I use digital sounds metaphorically and poetically: to confuse what is heard as “natural” or “artificial” sound, and to reference the dynamism and ephemerality of environments and forms of life.[3]

An example of this is White Noise/Snowstorm (2008), one of a series of pieces in which I translate color data from digital photographs into sound. I took time-lapse photographs, one per second for ten seconds, during a snowstorm on Ile-des-Soeurs, Québec, 10 December 2008. To gather a manageable amount of data to work with, I reduced the size of these images to 20×15 pixels each.


I then accessed the color information in these images using the program GraphicConverter, which can export data from each pixel into tab-delimited text files containing the blue information for photo #1.

These tables of numbers became the source material for shaping sounds in SuperCollider. The data dynamically change audible aspects of the sounds, like timbre and loudness, in real time. In the resulting composition, ten seconds of falling snow are expanded to ten minutes of white noise (listen to audio excerpt of photo #1). My aim was to create a sound composition, derived from the data in the photographs, that referenced an experience of being amidst a snowstorm. I also wished to play with the temporality of this experience: to use sound to “stretch out” ten seconds of a snowstorm into a longer, immersive sonic event.

Feminist theories and approaches to media production provide a foundation and context for this work. Donna Haraway has noted that knowledge and power have been consolidated in Western culture through the use of technologies that manifest a disembodied “gaze from nowhere” (Haraway 1988, 581; see also Parks 2005, 15). In response to this tradition, my projects take up technologies deliberately to express “sounds from somewhere”–audible traces of subjective experiences and embodied media performances, situated within otherwise abstract information networks and institutionally-defined fields of data. Additionally, working in SuperCollider resonates with third-wave feminist practices of print collage and its historical antecedents (see Piepmeier 2009; Kearney 2006). Like zine-making, open-source programming entails cutting, pasting, and transforming text that is shared among a community of developers, and where the creative endeavor can interrupt or redirect mass-mediated representations and mass-marketed tools. White Noise/Snowstorm suggests that digital images are not limited to their ready-made form, but rather provide raw material for myriad transformations and creative communications.


Tara Rodgers is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and a Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Digital Cultures & Creativity at the University of Maryland. Her collection of interviews, Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Duke University Press, 2010), received the 2011 Pauline Alderman Book Award from the International Alliance for Women in Music. 



[1] Several of these projects will be presented in a solo exhibition at the Stamp Gallery [ http://thestamp.umd.edu/entertainment/stamp_gallery ], University of Maryland, College Park, July 23-August 24, 2012.

[2] To begin making sounds in SuperCollider:

Download the latest version here [ http://supercollider.sourceforge.net/ ]. Install the application; open it, and click “boot” on the localhost server. Open a new window in the SuperCollider application (cmd-N on Mac); copy and paste this code into that new window:

{ WhiteNoise.ar(0.5) }.play;

Execute the code (place the cursor at the end of the line of code and press shift-Enter on Mac). This plays a whoosh of white noise. Press cmd-period when you wish to stop the noise. Adjust the numeric value (e.g., change the value to 0.1 instead of 0.5), execute the code again, and note that the noise has decreased in apparent volume.

To investigate how this code works and explore other sound-making options, find the associated help file in the application folder (SuperCollider->Help->UGens->Noise). The Noise and Oscillators help folders contain many code samples that are fun to start playing with, using the above methods of code execution and exploratory number substitution. For more extensive tutorials, visit the SuperCollider swiki [ http://swiki.hfbk-hamburg.de:8888/MusicTechnology/6 ] or check out The SuperCollider Book [ http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=12571 ] (MIT Press, 2011).

[3] Further information and additional sounds are available on my website [ http://www.pinknoises.com/ ] and at [ http://tararodgers.bandcamp.com/ ]


Works Cited

Haraway, Donna. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575-99.

Kearney, Mary Celeste. 2006. Girls Make Media. New York: Routledge.

Parks, Lisa. 2005. Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Piepmeier, Alison. 2009. Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. New York: NYU Press.

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