Creating the Orchestra of Nature with Mark Ballora

March 30, 2015

Meet Mark Ballora - Mark teaches music technology at Penn State University and is my partner in many sonification projects. Sonification is the use of non-verbal audio to convey data and information. For example, the rate of clicking of a Geiger counter conveys the level of radiation in the immediate vicinity of the device.

Academics like Mark are expected not only to teach, but also to do research or creative activity. For him, this means composing music and sonifying scientific datasets — turning science into music. Things definitely right up my alley! You'll find links to some of our pojects together at the bottom of this page.

Given music’s fundamental role in human life, the sciences can only gain from harnessing its power, both as a means of engagement and of further insight. We both believe our entire “beings” are based on vibrations and I thoroughly enjoy working alongside him. It’s always a great learning experience.

When Pythagoras described the music of the spheres, it turns out he was more right than anyone imagined. Tuning into the various vibrations and cycles of nature gives us a holistic listening experience - in which all of nature is an orchestra. Together with Mark and many other talented colleagues - we make this orchestra come alive.

I once asked him what it was like to work with me. He said “Working with you has upped my game. It has been my privilege to have you come to me with all kinds of crazy ideas: “What would this sound like? What about this?”  He went on to say; “I’m often taken aback and have to get my head around the very ideas you suggest. Making sounds out of earthquake data is easy enough to imagine doing, but now you’re asking for sounds of DNA - what should that sound like?”

Finding ways to get to sound versions of these things, which are both musical and informative, is “sublime” according to Mark. I couldn’t agree more.

A number of writers, such as evolutionary biologists E.O. Wilson and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, have speculated on the evolutionary role of music as a survival adaptation, given that responsiveness to music is a particularly salient factor of the human species.  Different people may like different kinds of music, but you won’t find anyone who doesn’t love some kind of music.

It’s been a great ride these past few years, and we’re not done yet — not by a long shot. It’s been truly inspiring to work with you Mark. Looking forward to what’s next.

Here are links to some of my projects with Mark:

75th Anniversary Festivities of the Golden Gate Bridge -

To compose this piece, I used data from accelerometers placed all over the span, and “sonified” the data  Mark's help.

AARP Presentation with Adam Gazzaley -

Part of a presentation I gave at the AARP convention with the help of neurologist Adam Gazzaley; Mark helped create the sounds of my brain.

Premiere of my film Rhythms of the Universe at the Smithsonian -

Premiere of my film Rhythms of the Universe at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. 
Video includes introductory remarks, a showing of the film, and a Q&A/discussion session. 

My Earth Day Message from 2014 -

Thanks to the work we've been doing toether, more and more people at Penn State are taking notice and asking Mark to work with their data. Last year a climatologist (who also happens to be a Deadhead) supplied him with data to create sonifications of the last 400,000 years of Antarctic ice data -

This year, he's also been able to create sonifications of hurricanes and arctic squirrel body temperatures -

And lastly, one of my personal favorites, his talk at TEDx Penn State -

In Rhythm,