An interdepartmental collaboration brings out the music of fusion
May 4, 2018
It could be the background soundtrack for a science fiction movie. Some sounds bubble up like prehistoric chirps from primordial ooze. Others whirl up and down octaves, quickly joined by a progressive rattling that slinks across the sound landscape.
“That’s C-Mod’s data!” notes Prof. Joe Paradiso, Director of the Responsive Environments Group at MIT’s Media Lab. “That sch-sch-sch-sch. Like a snake.”
Or like chattering insects; or a New Year’s Eve noisemaker.
Paradiso is using a modular synthesizer to translate data into artful sound – specifically data from one of the final fusion experiments on the Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s (PSFC) Alcator C-Mod tokamak. Late on September 30, 2016, this experiment set the plasma pressure record for a magnetically confined fusion device. To emphasize the connection between the scientific data and the soundscape it augments, Paradiso has temporarily located his project at the PSFC near the cell where Alcator C-Mod is still housed.
“That’s the beauty of having it here,” he enthuses. “It’s a great space; it has the right ambiance. It’s very inspirational.”
The installation, entitled Resynthesizer, is a collaboration between the department of Nuclear Science & Engineering, the Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT), the PSFC and the Media Lab. The partners in this project are offering
Nuclear science and engineering professor Nuno Loureiro, who was instrumental to locating the synth at the PSFC, sees a conversation beginning.
“This is one of those rare instances where we are connecting parts of campus that don’t traditionally talk to each other. And that’s exciting for everybody, especially the students. They are intrigued to think about art in the context of science, and science in the context of art.”
To create his atmospheric soundscapes, Paradiso modifies the sounds in several ways.
“Once it is converted to audio, I process the C-Mod data with various effects, including clocking it at different rates, as well as dynamically selecting data files made from different variables from the experiment.”
Paradiso was inspired by the haunting sound of C-Mod data to “fortify this mood” with other modified and heavily processed sounds, some taken from oscillators and speech generators, as well as triggered elements from commercial keyboards – but much of this sound is also modulated and controlled by C-Mod data.
“I tried to keep it – not dark, but more mysterious. I couldn’t make it happy. It’s not really happy. It’s otherworldly.
Prof. Loureiro sees parallels between this sonic art and fusion research.
“With the synth, minor changes in the patch produce completely different outcomes, just as in fusion experiments slight changes to a variable creates a completely different fusion reaction. Both are nonlinear systems that can behave completely differently depending on the input.”
Paradiso, who introduced the resynthesizer in April as part of ACT's 50th Anniversary celebration of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), was pleased with the process and the results.
“It’s great to be an artist – it’s too easy these days to let my students have all the creative fun. I want to make more pieces with it and build out its repertoire.” He proposes a jam session with students from the Media Lab joining PSFC researchers for musical encounters with the synthesizer. Graduate students who have studied C-Mod data for their own PhD theses could be jamming with it before the end of the month, collaborating with that data in a whole new way.
Hear what the resynthesizer is current streaming.