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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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