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The Daily Need

A chilling aural portrait of the deadly earthquake near Japan

Images of a rising tide washing over coastlines, swallowing boats and sweeping away neighborhoods have painted an indelible portrait of the destruction wrought by Japan’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

But what about the sounds? What would an earthquake sound like if we could hear it?

Micah Frank, a sound programmer from Brooklyn, has attempted to answer that question by producing aural interpretations of the seismic activity from Japan’s earthquake. Frank is the founder of the Tectonic Project, which aggregates earthquake data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and turns it into sound sculptures in real time. These soundscapes paint a chilling aural portrait of disasters like the one in Japan.

“I listen to some of these, and they are really sort of haunting,” Frank said in an interview Friday.

Sensors operated by the USGS around the world collect data on seismic activity — location, magnitude, depth within the earth — and relay that activity back to a central database. Frank’s computers then parse that data and, using different types of synthesis, apply texture and various aural effects. “This sound computer basically generates sound given certain parameters,” Frank said.

The project was launched in October 2009 and was designed originally to be an installation. “I was really interested in, basically, sonification and synthesizing data,” Frank said. “Listening to things is a whole different experience.”

But with the apparent frequency of deadly earthquakes like the ones in Haiti, China and now Japan, Frank’s aural interpretations of seismic activity have found new relevance on the web.

In one of the more evocative tracks posted by Frank on Friday, the faint sound of waves washing gently along a shore gives way to a piercing silence, and then a much more discordant noise, like the sound of glass shattering. Soon a series of ghostly oscillations, punctuated by disquieting harmonic rhythms, settles in. It sounds, as Frank put it, like “Mother Nature crying,” an effect that was not manufactured.

“None of it’s really been tailored to sound like that,” Frank said.

If you’re looking to interpret the sounds to get an idea of what was happening during the quake — where it took place, how far under the earth it was — there are some specific cues to listen for, Frank said.

“It’s basically a sound processor, so all of these parameters are parsed based on the earthquake’s longitude, latitude, magnitude, depth within the earth,” Frank said. The pitch, for example, signifies the depth of the earthquake’s tremors, which can range anywhere from near the surface — which is the most damaging — to about 60 kilometers.

The result, Frank said, is a surprisingly realistic portrait of an otherwise ineffable natural phenomenon.

“It’s just another dimension,” Frank said. “I think a lot of people agree that it sounds like what the earth should sound like.”

Here’s a video Frank posted explaining how the Tectonic Project works:

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  • Janice Mcclellan19

    THis is very interesting..

  • Alex Benedict

    Micah Frank provides another example of how the computer is being used as an art medium in itself. The expanding world of art is fantastic.

  • Jal333

    It sounds like the Earth is “breathing” between events.

  • Morgan January

    The Japan track is like listening to the Earth having a massive coronary. It’s truly chilling.

  • Sally

    this is horrible – only in the way it is supposed to be, though – not in an insulting, “this is horrible” way. it’s disturbing on a gut level – a primal level of upset. amazing. beautiful in a horrible way.

  • Southerby

    What would happen if this sound be played in the open air? would it attract energy? would it stop energy coming from space or earth’s core?

  • Anonymous

    That is just amazing..

  • Anonymous

    One intriguing way to manifest the “music of the spheres” – or at least some of the music of the Earth sphere.

  • Greg..

    Hmmm white noise and a phazer, not really a nice thought, proceeds of the Puremagnetic sample pack should be donated to the plite of the people in Japan, and with all due respect, a fairly pointless waiste of time, despite cerebal atempts to seem profound and musical. Woo Hoo!.

  • inforodeo

    I completely disagree. Though it started out as art, the ability to experience a different perspective – to hear what the quake sounds like – is as important as any other scientific instrument that translates something outside our grasp to something within it. Thermometers, barometers, x-rays, magnetic compasses, thermal imaging … these all do the same “pointless” stuff. It might seem ephemeral and trivial now, but there is some value in this, even if tiny minds haven’t figured it out yet.

  • wtf man

    wtf are you on about

  • I like the idea of the original installation– but the context has changed. SIlence is one apt response.

  • A playful investigation into understanding earthquakes differently– yes. But– a scientific insturment? Really? What can we measure with this exactly?

  • Dfd

    i feel sick

  • Akwiatkowski

    A lot of interesting ideas from this and your work.

  • Mr Philipphilips

    Do you guys want to hear the murmor of the earths core by just using your god given ears. Every device has a  controll which regulates the in flow and the out flow .be it electricity or water or anything whatever. even sight when controlled can be used to see things you cannot see normaly. and smell and touch and anything and everything in built in you even to magnify objects you see .Everything the animals have we have even better that is why we are here still and multiplying .Because of an organised community we have not the purpose to use these skills like a thief or a serial killer . Think how enomouse is the mass of the earths core and how close we are to it that it can spill all over us in no time at all and yet we cant hear it . You don’t need a seismograph to do it nor any other sound track divice, You can hear it with your own ears. It is quite frightenning at first but you will get used to it soon enough. I feel this should be taught to all people of the world to constantly listen to it for strange variations in the sound to detect a difference that might be the a warning sign before an earth quake so measures can be taken by individuals. Only if you are interested to know how.?This I will know when you ask me for it and I will also know that you have gone through this piece of information and not thrown it away or could use it for selfish gain. I believe the earth is a living inteligent being and we are its ofsprings now developing its firey mass on the surface of the earth under its command sounds that controll our brain to do all the things we have done and will do. Our intelegance is merely fed to us in the form of sound waves we recieve from below as we continue the process outwards and on wards. Every life wants to live and so does the earth and all we have is the time to do the right things in time, for the transition to take place Perhaps a change or perhaps a new species. I am a musician by nature and believe me intelegence moulds itself into words that form a meaning and a reason to derive a passage into mortality and a being begins to be . So the cow moos the song of its creators and each animal and creature sings his song of creation. You are not intelegant nor am I but the sounds that come from the bottom of the earth grooms us and makes us what we are. Sounds that collect in the atmosphere gather into words on the scholars mind and a speach  comes forth as a prophersy and the writers write the spoken speaches that come to life and we live and shape these words in our make believe reality. If you like to listen ask me . Thank You. Philip