Volcanologist-by-day, musician-by-night combines his love of violin with Kīlauea
Artistic inspiration can come from anywhere. For Leif Karlstrom, it's volcanoes. The volcanologist-by-day, musician-by-night turns data into sound and then uses those sounds to make music.
Born into a family of musicians, Karlstrom got his first violin before his first bicycle. He carried his love of music with him, but he never imagined it could play a role in his scientific study.
While teaching at the University of Oregon, Karlstrom came across colleagues in earth science who were turning earthquake data into sound through a process called sonification.
A light bulb went off. Couldn’t Karlstrom do the same thing with volcanoes? And what if he took it a step further to make something truly unique?
The Volcano Listening Project was born. He has since made several volcanic music pieces, including one that uses data from our very own Kīlauea — "Hotel Kilauea."
"I would view the data sonification as another player in the ensemble, I guess. And so I'm reacting both to the volcano, to the data, which is ultimately the director, the conductor, but also to the other musicians because I'm reacting musically to them," he said.
The Conversation’s Savannah Harriman-Pote reached out to Karlstrom to hear more about the meeting of his two worlds.
On the intersection of music and science in his life
LEIF KARLSTROM: These worlds are quite different. In most circumstances, the world of music and the world of science, they occupy different parts of our culture, and the people who practice them seriously tend not to hang out together, for better or for worse. And so, I kept them pretty separate and sort of intentionally so, sort of for many years, and it was only actually well after I started my current job at the University of Oregon, it sort of came to me that there was some overlap that could be meaningful in both spheres. In some ways, these are sort of very musical events. They build up, they have a climax, they have a very musical structure. And that lends itself pretty well, no matter what the datatype is, to representation via sound.
On why Kīlauea caught his ear
KARLSTROM: Kīlauea is, of course, the most active volcano in the world — so why wouldn't everyone want to study it? — and is currently, you know, one of the best-monitored volcanoes on Earth. And so we have this really unique opportunity to look in great detail at what's going on at Kīlauea. That's just a great opportunity for sonification because we have many concurrent data streams that together, of course, tell the scientific story, but also provide an opportunity to create sounds, to create music.
On the science behind "Hotel Kilauea"
KARLSTROM: "Hotel Kīlauea" represents a time period between 2000 and 2010. And I suppose listeners who are familiar with Kīlauea will recognize that the latter part of that decade was when the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater opened and began a spectacular 20-year eruptive episode that ended in 2018. Generally speaking, I do separate the pure sonification part, which is just representing data via sound, from the interpretation with traditional or nontraditional instruments, which is subjective, artistic. The former is something that you could do with any dataset, and I view it on par with creating a plot or something that traditionally we look at scientific data this way, but for this piece in particular, we actually started with three different datasets.
One of them is sort of a very long-duration deformation of the Kīlauea summit. So we have that as a sort of through going, slow motion. Superimposed on that we have a much more rapid deformation, which were episodes that happens episodically, not at a regular interval but quite often throughout the last sort of 20-plus years of Kīlauea's activity and we used different types of sounds to represent each. They're very faithful to the data, but they're representing a different wave sonically. Third dataset that we used in that particular piece was a continuous gas emissions reported at the summit — SO2, sulfur dioxide gas reported at Kīlauea summit. That latter part of the decade, starting about 2007, we saw a lot of sulfur dioxide being emitted from the summit coincident with the opening of that crater.
On turning the datasets into music notes
KARLSTROM: What we then did is — taking off our science hats and putting on our musician hats — I went into the recording studio with three musical colleagues: another violinist, a stand-up bass player, and a guitarist. And we just sort of listened to the data, sat in the same room together around a couple of microphones, and just improvised to it. So you can think of it as sort of like free jazz, but directed by the volcano. And the result is, I guess, the recording that we have, "Hotel Kīlauea." The guitarist and bass player both used a technique that's maybe formally called prepared guitar, prepared bass, and really what it just means is like messing with the sounds by sticking things between the strings, and I think there was a paperclip involved, there was some sort of crumpled up paper, there was a rubber band. Those together, I think made for some pretty unique sounds.
KARLSTROM: I would view the data sonification as another player in the ensemble, I guess. And so I'm reacting both to the volcano, to the data, which is ultimately the director, the conductor, but also to the other musicians because I'm reacting musically to them. And of course, we don't react exactly in time with the volcano, and there's a bit of a lag. And so it's a subjective interpretation, but we are trying to follow the contours of the data and create a piece of music around that.
When you listen back to the piece now, what tone do you feel it has?
Well, it is rather ominous. I've been told that it sounds like a horror movie soundtrack. I guess I don't really try to over-interpret or emote too much. We chose a particular scale modality to play in, which I think naturally gave it this tone, we chose a diminished scale. There's, in some sense, a very objective reason to do that. The diminished scale is a symmetric scale. It's a whole step followed by a half step followed by a whole step followed by a half step, etc. It does sound dark and a bit dissonant, actually, but it is one of the most objective ways in which you can play. So I don't think it was meant to convey a particular emotion or a particular feeling. But rather, we were trying to mimic the objectivity of the data sonification approach.
Do you think there's a role within the project for outreach to local and Indigenous musicians to see their interpretations of sonified datasets from volcanoes?
Absolutely. In some ways, I'm well aware that what we're doing is not new, actually. I think a lot of art and culture surrounding volcanoes, you could view as very similar to what we are doing. We're using modern scientific computational methods to interpret modern geophysical data. But in some sense, this is following the great tradition that anyone who has ever been near a volcano certainly has taken on. So if there's an opportunity for us to complete the circle in some sense, to use the sonification that we've created to motivate other interpretations — perhaps in a more traditional sense or however that may manifest — I would be really interested to see that happen.
This interview also aired on The Conversation on Jan. 4, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.