Making Art Out Of Tragedy – Micah Frank’s ‘Sonifications’ Of The Great Japanese Earthquake

Micah Frank is an electronic musician and sound designer, based out of New York, whose recent work is generating a lot of controversy because it involves the sonification of earthquakes.

Above, Frank’s Sonification of the great Japan earthquake.

Frank’s Tectonic is integrated system between Max/MSP, Google Earth and Ableton Live processes a stream of real-time data that is translated into synthesis and sample playback parameters. When an earthquake occurs, seismic data is relayed to the system, sound is produced and Google Earth immediately flies to the coordinates of the latest earthquake.

We’ve mentioned Frank’s Tectonic, a free album of music created using this approach, previously. Many readers took issue with the post and its subject matter.

One reader asked, “Does the music include the sound of people screaming, pinned inside crumblings buildings, sirens, explosions?”

Others, though, heard something besides tragedy. “It’s an effort to bring something interesting and wonderful out of chaos. There is no changing the fact that earthquakes happen.”

Making Art Out Of Tragedy

When I initially posted on Micah Frank’s Tectonic project, I was focused on the technology and the concept of translating the earth’s processes into music. Readers pointed out that there’s more to Frank’s project than Max/MSP and synthesis, though.

There’s also a sensationalistic element and an opportunistic aspect to it. And, with the latest sonification, there’s the question of whether it’s appropriate to be making music when there are bodies to be recovered.

I think that art does have a very important role in helping us understand tragedy and that it’s important for musicians to deal with difficult issues.

But, while I’m comfortable with Frank releasing a free album of music made from earthquake data, I’m less comfortable with the idea of him making music out of tragedy and publishing it as the events are still happening.

Here are Frank’s comments on his Sonification of the great Japan earthquake. I’d be interested in your thoughts on it and on the larger question of how musicians should approach dealing with tragic situations:

Sonification of seismic activity off the coast of Honshu, Japan – Friday March 11th.

This is only a selection of 20 or so individual readings. At the time of this recording, earthquakes are ongoing and there have been almost 40 in the past 8 hours.

Tectonic is a realtime seismic analysis and sound synthesis system. Sound is created in realtime by earthquakes as they occur across the globe. A tightly integrated system between Max/MSP, Google Earth and Symbolic Sound’s Kyma processes earthquake data that is translated into sound synthesis parameters. A USGS XML feed is parsed into numerous fields including magnitude, elevation, time of day and geographical coordinates. These data are mapped to synthetic spectrums and processed by granular, aggregate and subtractive synthesis.

39 thoughts on “Making Art Out Of Tragedy – Micah Frank’s ‘Sonifications’ Of The Great Japanese Earthquake

  1. Even though no money is being made it is opportunistic and sensationalistic…..its pretty obvious and I dont know why this would even have to be asked or why the music was done in the first place. Its one thing for us to discuss this be it would be a shame for anyone living this nightmare right now to hear about this. Shame on him.

  2. @Scott. Should we also ban the TV crews and individual photographers who are now streaming graphic scenes of horror and devastation into our living rooms? They're motives – selling news paper, gaining a story commission for time magazine, selling ads on TV are far more exploitative that anything Micah Frank is doing.

    One purpose of art is to provide a reinterpretation and a different conceptualization of our live and the world around us. Micah is clearly an artist whose work pre-dates these tragic events. I have no problem with him providing a 'different' – and if you listen to it – an emotionally compelling interpretation of the events. In my view that is just as 'legitimate' as the acres of photographic prints that will surely soon be gracing the walls of fine galleries around the world.

    Finally, it would be goos to remember that some of the greatest art produced by human societies has its genesis in pain and suffering – whether personal or communal. The poems of Rupert Brooke – based on his experience of the horrors of WWI – stand as a supreme example. How about Robert Capa's "Death of a Loyalist Soldier" – exploitative?

    I for one hope that Micah expands the reach of his 'Sonifications' work and continues to provide us with a powerful alternative perspective on the world around us.

  3. I actually think it's ok to do that, one can use things to promote himself which might not please all. art was not always about pleasing, sometimes it's just someone trying to claim some attention onto himself!

  4. GWRITER you arguments are valid but there is a difference between making "Art" off of a trajedy AS IT HAPPENS and all the other significant art you reference…..this trajedy is still unfolding and only 2 days old…give me a break.
    Nobody was suggesting to dictate what art should and should not be. This is not an issue of censorship…he has any right to do whatever he wants….but all your philospophical justifications (which I agree with intellectually) do not change my response…….AGAIN I wonder if you would feel comfortable justifying "art" this way with people truly suffering right now, should you have to see them face to face, not commenting on a detached online post.
    Yes he has a right to do it and nobody should dictate what art is, but the question was "how do we feel about it…"and that's how I feel.

  5. This is straight up opportunism and he should be ashamed of trying to get cheap fame off what is going on in Japan. It might be different if he'd been selling the mp3s and giving the money to a related charity fund, or doing benefit funds but as far as I'm aware he isn't. This is purely self serving self-promotion.

  6. So when people would sing on national television on a benefit show, they do it just to 'help' the victims or to have a place in the spotlight. I do not see why Frank should be ashamed, he is not looking for cheap fame. In fact, his system exist quite a while and was not especially made for this earthquake. Also, earthquakes are happening constantly, only we do not perceive them as the magnitude in many cases is not so high. The only difference between a normal earthquake and the Japan one is the scale of it. For the rest, the data Frank uses are only numbers and nothing is wrong with numbers I think.

  7. Ok so it is official, every time there is an earthquake this guy is going to make a new post.
    The first time i wan't against it, but now indeed it seems oportunistic.
    Besides the ethics though the idea is overdone to death, there have been just too many earthquake to music 'translations' . It is definately not novel and using sample playback synthesis is just the stupidest of these efforts.

    Sonification, with sample playback ? come on….this is not even synthesis..

    In the end mapping turns to be more important than the data itself, so in my opinion this is just an excuse for "bad composing".

  8. So algorithmic music is bad composing? is it opportunistic to write a composition related to an event? John Adams wrote a requiem for 9/11, was that opportunistic?

  9. In my opinion this is simply sick, produced by a somewhat twisted person.

    There are some areas where you don't go. You don't try to profile yourself by exploiting the misery of other human beings. That is; if you have any morale and self esteem.

  10. I don't think the tracks are good as music or art, and the technique used is old hat. The only reason they tracks are getting attention is because of the sensationalist aspect – and given that the tragedy in Japan is actually still ongoing, and that their are estimated to be 10,000 people still missing, (let alone the thousand-plus already dead), I think this is pretty shocking and sad.

    It's not a debate about what an artist should and shouldn't do etc, because if this WAS great art, it would be more than what we have on his soundcloud page – it's just cheap publicity seeking, imo, as well as being offensive.

    Also, for a guy rich enough to be using Kyma and to have the modular rig as shown on his website (because free albums dont pay the bills lol), I sure hope he is decent enough to give something as a donation to the rescue fund. Just a thought…

  11. Yes, there are times when we should indeed do just that. Because sometimes even TV crews and reporters can go way out of line and instead of credit should actually be held responsible for their actions.

    Even with reporting a disaster there are certain things any normal person simply would not do. For example there is a big difference between reporting that a certain town got hit by a Tsunami and pushing camera's into people' faces who just lost their entire family. Unfortunately the latter kind of reporting tends to sell better because of the "sensation" factor.

    Like that very well known coverage of a mudslide where a "reporter" found a girl who was buried up to her neck. Instead of trying to do everything it takes to *at least* TRY and get her out he simply filmed the whole tragedy until she died. While there are many people who considered this to be a "great" coverage which "really showed the human tragedy" I personally consider it disgusting and consider that specific reporter a piece of trash lowlife who should have been prosecuted, fired and spit out by society.

    Just my 2 cents of course.

  12. its pure opportunism, anyone who cant see this has issues with understanding basic reality

    nobody needs to know the source of his math that drives these sound generators.. UNLESS you are trying to capitalize on it as something with inherent relevance or value .. which is in this case, a massive tragedy

    he could have made this music without advertising it as "the sound of japans earthquake".. but then nobody would be interested because it sounds like shit – which is appropriate considering its just a bunch of intellectual flatulence

  13. his work is called 'Sonification of the great Japan earthquake' – i might be wrong, but wouldn't the correct grammar be 'Japanese earthquake'??

    reading mr frank's posts on the monome forum is quite 'intresting' – when asked about technical stuff he says he " would love to share the gory geeky details…" and later suggests "we have quite an extensive list for our press releases. i would just need a paragraph or two of "official" copy and i can send a blast out".

    'a blast out'????

    the guy certainly has a way with words!

  14. Algorithmic music is actually the field i've been involved also for the last 10 years.
    So to answer your question i kind of like algorithmic music 🙂

    In order though to do algorithmic music you should be at least able to understand the algorithm. It is a tool, not a magic rain stick, not Bach in a box.It doesn't compose for you. a composition consists of choices. Where are his ???

    Now if one wants instead to judge it as a sonification work, then it would be nice to have someone tell us how this was more informative than the actual visual data representation in order to understand the phenomena.

    To express it in a different way, this earthquake thingy is as kitch as using sample and hold on a noise source in order to control pitch data.
    Overdone to death……..

    It would be oportunistic for John Adams, everytime there is a terror attack to post over here a reminder " hey don't forget to listen to this music i composed based on a terror attack, you might find it relevant especially if you have had any personal losess, i garranty it will make you cry "

  15. What's with all the douchebags posting here? The guy makes sounds from earthquakes as they happen. He decided to do it because it was cool, people appreciate it because it's free audio to work with. This isn't the first time he's released audio, it seems like a pretty consistent thing. He's not selling dramatized depictions in order to win fame or fortune. He's posting what's practically white noise for god's sake. "OMG all the people really into weird audio samples are going to know about this guy!" If he was making something out of this I'd get it, but he's not.

  16. Didn't Tectonic come out prior to the earthquake in japan? In february? So he finds himself working on a project concerning sonification of seismic activity prior to the japanese earthquake of march 11th and a giant earthquake happens. Seems like making a sonification of that earthquake was a logical next step.

    It's not as if he was sitting around thinking about how to make this earthquake an opportunity for himself. It was already an established project and subject matter he was working on.

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