Blog – Sandra Kennedy: Crafting Tuil is Geil Storylines

The aim of this project is to connect data on future winter storm projections, with real life experiences of these storms.  This helps us all see how winter storms have an effect on our lives here in the Western Isles, with that understanding we can build up strategies for coping, as we have an increased number storms in the future as the data predicts, in a rising emission scenario.

To begin with I set myself up with a process rather than a specific goal for the outcome of the piece. I decided on audio as a way of bringing in the literal voices of the community into the core of the work. The Làn Thìde partners were also encouraging when I suggested we have a mix of Gaelic and English. Music would be ‘composed’ by the data through the process of data sonification and the content would be the voices from the various communities around the islands. My job would be to facilitate the best possible circumstances for good conversation, or for story-telling. I would then weave together audio pieces with the two threads – data sonification and conversation clips of the participants.

The first thing was to find willing participants. It was mid-January and according to the Met office one of the islands darkest January’s with only 30% of expected sunshine, and in the Outer Hebrides expectations for sunshine are not very high. So, not the bright frosty winter which we find healthy and refreshing. This was a gloomy mild, dark and damp January. When February came in we had named storm after storm, one in particular causing a lot of structural damage. There was definitely an air of fatigue.

After two years of lockdowns and pandemic we were all zoomed out, but zoom was our only option as there were still restrictions.  I had very low expectations for numbers, but we put out invitations, advertisements and we found some very generous people who were all brilliant speakers with a genuine interest in weather patterns and climate, and spoke with wit and enthusiasm and a great understanding of the issues.

Early on I decided we could have 3 themes: Historic storms – as people often want to remember the big events when it comes to storms; Everyday life – effects of stormy weather, such as not being able to exercise or go and see friends; Working life- how poor weather impacts livelihoods.

We had 4 workshops online to gather stories, information, opinions and to have discussion. Dr James Pope from the Met office was able to be there and was a source of knowledge and explanation for the brilliant and often technical questions that came up. We also invited people to write in, if they couldn’t do the zoom sessions. It was lovely to get those written stories, you can find on the Làn Thìde website. Along with that I visited locals in my own community who had various experiences of storms as fishermen and crofters.

With the themes in mind the conversation clips and sound bites were selected and a chain of local voices were in place to give an overview of these real life experiences that would be so fascinating to listen to. Along with this I made several versions of the music soundtracks. James prepared some excel documents containing the figures representing the climate projections he was working on for the Western Isles.  At first we experimented with the complete data 2030-2080. I used a data sonification software, that’s very simple to use called Two Tone.  This simply converts excel columns into musical scales. Each excel column represented data for wind speed, temperature at surface and precipitation. I experimented with using wind instruments for representing wind, harp for precipitation and violin for temperature. This first piece ended up being more than 35 minutes long! I found it really interesting as there was a slow build up of intensity over time and it drew you in. I played about with the tempo to try and shorten it, but it became very frenetic.

James then had an idea to shorten the piece, and broke the data up into sections of 30 years, and also a data sheet that extracted storm events with over 70mm of rain in a week. This helped to condense the information and therefore shorten the tracks without them having a hyper quick tempo. I made many versions of these tracks and used a music editing software called Ableton to add atmosphere without losing the sound patterns of the sonification. I used field recordings of wind, sea, and things like a wind up radio as part of the soundtracks. These were also made into the scales and represented the data.

I was very keen to not manipulate the data and let it do what it wanted to do by itself using the software-  especially in terms of tempo and intensity so that the information would be audible to listeners, and so that the finished work would hold on to the integrity of the research James had done. There were not very many big dramatic moments in sound intensity, but what came across was the relentlessness and the subtle build up in the number patterns, and I think this does reflect the research.

To finish the project we held two in person events and one online zoom event to bring the work to the public. With this we have hopefully connected the data to our stories past and future.


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