AudioObject 2: “The Human Cost”
Data–driven music composition is a subset of sonic information design which foregrounds aesthetic factors in a sonification with the aim of sustaining a listener’s engagement. The concern for aesthetic factors in sound mappings may also encourage a listening strategy which prioritizes a search for correlation and causality within and between the different elements of the sonification. “The Human Cost” uses socio-economic data sets from the period preceding and following Ireland’s post–2008 economic crash and recession. The piece is informed by Michael White’s (2003) observation that we use the notion of a living organism as a conceptual metaphor for the economy. GNP is mapped to control a parameterized heartbeat sound, providing a rhythmic grounding for the piece. Deprivation, unemployment, and emigration are mapped to control parameters of three synthesized vocal gestures, created in CSound using FOF synthesis, a hybrid of granular and formant synthesis techniques (Clarke 1992). The data is mapped so that the leading voice (representing emigration data) takes the foreground, while the other two voices (deprivation and unemployment) provide a sonic backdrop. Data is mapped to control the pitch vowel shape in each vocal gesture so that, as the economy worsens, the open vowel sounds shift to closed vowel sounds, and pitch increases to communicate a sense of tension, providing an embodied association through the corresponding increased tension in the throat and facial musculature with closed/higher vowel sounds such as “e” and “i” (Durand 2005).
From a culturally–specific perspective, this is informed by a similar approach to the structure of pitch and prosody found in old Irish laments, a type of song sung at a wake, a social gathering which was often held to honor either a deceased relative or a relative who was emigrating with no prospect of return. The backing vocal sounds move around the stereo stage. As the economic data worsens, the speed of this movement increases. The piece adopts the concept of the lament as a conceptual metaphor for the data represented, utilizing synthesis parameters to evoke vocal emphasis and stress patterns which are similar to the pitch and vowel contours found in laments. Furthermore, for narrative purposes, the piece is broken into two sections. The first section is marked by dynamic filtering of the spectral content to alter the timbre so that it sounds more diffuse and “dream-like.” This filtering is no longer present by the halfway point, as the 2009 data is heard. This aesthetic and narrative effect is intended to reference the painful realization, in the years directly after the financial crash, that the dream-like optimism and unrestrained growth of the “Celtic Tiger Era” was now a thing of the past.