Sonification is the art of representing information through sounds. Often, correspondences are established, via the medium of number, between certain properties or qualities of the event or situation being represented and sonic properties such as pitch and volume: the pitch of a sound might increase as temperature increases, for example, or rhythmic density might vary with the frequency of events. But do such representations count as music, or do they fall entirely under some different, separate category of object? In my experience, this question is best answered at the level of the individual work, rather than in sweeping generalisations. So where falls Helen White’s “Solar Wind Chime”, created to sonify the solar winds that buffet the Earth from the Sun?
“Solar Wind Chime” is actually a sonic sculpture that resembles traditional wind chimes, but uses magnets to make its tubes hum and whoop. These magnets are controlled by data from real solar wind events, three of which are recorded on a short album released via Bristol label Every Contact Leaves A Trace: a period of relative solar calm, an ‘Action Region 9077 X5.7-Class Flare’, and a ‘G5 Peak’. The calm period is represented by a stable group of closely-clustered tones, the closeness of the tones generating fast oscillations and resonances along a fairly flat surface. The higher pitches and wider range of tones heard in the representation of the X5.7-class flare immediately suggest much more activity; there are more changes in the volume balance of different pitches, and the piece ends up somewhat lower than it started. The G5 Peak is dense like the calm period, but seemingly with a greater number of pitches, with other tones bouncing around in the background of the main cluster; sudden introductions of different frequencies suggest an energetic, constantly changing environment.
While “Solar Wind Chime” is an intriguing and imaginative way of introducing the concept of solar winds, the aesthetic appeal of these pieces for me has a great deal to do with their sense of mystery. I get the impression that an expert could understand the information conveyed by these signals, but for me this meaning remains tantalisingly out of reach, hinting at marvellous wonders yet obscuring them at the same time; a language that could open up a whole new world, teetering on the verge of intelligibility. Maybe if I spent time with such an expert who could explain the various correspondences to me, I would come to understand the sounds’ modes of representation; maybe then they would stop being music for me, or maybe the admiration would be transferred from the sounds to the solar phenomena they are used to represent. For now, I can enjoy bathing in these energised streams of sound, while imagining magnetic winds pummelling the planet from eight light minutes away.