June 9, 2011 at 5:37 PM ET
Nathalie Miebach decides what storms sound like.
This Boston artist spends her studio time turning reams of weather data — wind speeds, barometric readings and rainfall totals — into music and sculptures.
Miebach's work has tracked temperate storms, documented the daily weather of beaches. In one particularly poignant project, she created a musical piece that documented changes in weather during the week following her father-in-law's death. For her work, Miebach was selected as a 2011 TEDGlobal Fellow.
It began when Miebach signed up for astronomy night classes at Harvard, while taking basket weaving lessons from a local artist during the day. "I was going to the lecture with my bucket and sprayer," Miebach said, "[I was] learning about astronomy ... about the deepest of space, and the deepest of time, but all I really got was a two-dimensional understanding of it all."
But then something clicked: Miebach found herself thinking, "I could really use the basket to find a tactile way of understanding astronomy."
Miebach's final project wove her daytime and nighttime pursuits neatly together. She made a basket which described an astronomical chart — the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which astronomers use to classify stars.
Miebach was hooked. "When you take data and put it into 3-D, things get revealed that don’t get seen in a normal graph," said the artist, who spent six years after her Harvard course working on art inspired by data from the stars.
And then one day, she got a call from two weather scientists at Tufts University. They'd gotten wind of her work, and asked her to spend a summer collecting weather data on a lonely patch of Massachusetts coast on Cape Cod.
The Cape Cod experience rerouted her attention to weather data, which she then started using as the raw material for her artistic work. To create the pieces she makes now, she uses a combination of data she collects by herself, from wind vanes and temperature gauges, as well as data available off the Internet: temperature and wind speed, measured over the course of days, weeks, or months.
Where the music happens
The musical bits coming out of Miebach's projects really started out as a happy accident, when she realized that what she understood as a graph of data could be re-interpreted by musicians.
Miebach wasn't an expert herself. "I don’t know anything about music – I don’t play music and I can’t read music," she acknowledged. But she found musicians such as Janet Schiff, a Milwaukee cellist, who were willing to help her convert numbers on graph paper to music that musicians could understand. "That was my challenge," Schiff told me.
"My No. 1 rule is that I don't touch the data," she said. The numbers get laid out on a graph. The graph is then embellished with things that Miebach saw, like the cloud cover, or the moon cycles. "A D on a piano keyboard might be a 5-mile-an-hour wind," Miebach said.
During a series of exchanges with the musicians, the notations are reworked, polished, and refined so that they make musical sense. The music ends up sounding a little like this, or this. Both of these are recordings of Miebach's "Hurricane Noel," which was made from weather data that tracked a storm's path along North America's east coast, all the way from Haiti to Nova Scotia. (The audio files are large, so give them a while to open.)
Miebach encourages the musicians who play her work — such as Janet Schiff and her colleagues in the Nineteen Thirteen Trio, or the Axis Ensemble — to personalize the work, as long as they keep the data intact. That's why the two recordings sound different.
Artistry and awkwardness
It isn't until the score is perfected and packed away that Miebach begins sculpting. She picks one or two elements of the swirling data before her, and begins building, looping in layer after layer, creating wall mounts as well as woven sculptures.
The final products, arresting visuals with loud weaves and bright colors, at first glance look like something out of a kid's store, Miebach admits, but that's what draws people in.
"Only when they have their nose in the sculpture, that’s when they realize that this is all numbers. That behind all this playful presentation is a system of logic that puts it all together," she said.
At that moment, there's an "awkward tension" that develops between the viewer and her piece, Miebach said, as they realize that what they're looking at could fit snugly in an art gallery, in a science museum and in a craft show. This awkward art appreciation is just what Miebach is looking for.
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