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Composers created music inspired by seismic readings from Yellowstone National Park

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Close your eyes and imagine being surrounded by the serene and untouched beauty of Yellowstone National Park. What do you hear?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMENICO VICINANZA AND ALYSSA SCHWARTZ'S "YELLOWSTONE GEYSERS SONIFICATION")

DOMENICO VICINANZA: For me, it was a fantastic moment because I felt I was able to give voice to something that otherwise was really hidden.

RASCOE: Domenico Vicinanza is a physicist at Anglia Ruskin University in England. He developed a computer program that turns data into sheet music. And last week, that data was real time seismic readings from Yellowstone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMENICO VICINANZA AND ALYSSA SCHWARTZ'S "YELLOWSTONE GEYSERS SONIFICATION")

VICINANZA: I love the way how music can inform and can actually do a very nice job at providing a window into science and into data.

RASCOE: Yellowstone is known for its hills and canyons and geysers and hot springs. The park is a hotbed - literally - of volcanic activity. The idea was that the musical notes would rise and fall with the vibrations created by the Earth's constantly shifting tectonic plates. The score was performed live by the flutist Alyssa Schwartz at a conference in Atlanta. Schwartz, a visiting professor of musicology at Fairmont State University, says the biggest challenge was that she couldn't predict how the Earth would tremble.

ALYSSA SCHWARTZ: This was a whole new type of artistry, actually. I've never been in another situation where I was asked to sight read and then also add my own flair on the spot. So it was a very unique experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMENICO VICINANZA AND ALYSSA SCHWARTZ'S "YELLOWSTONE GEYSERS SONIFICATION")

RASCOE: The process of taking data and turning it into sound is called data sonification. And it's not just a novelty. Vicinanza says data sonification can be used to spot trends or patterns because listening to data is sometimes easier than poring over spreadsheets or graphs. His first big project was almost a decade ago when he took data collected by the Large Hadron Collider and created this composition.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMENICO VICINANZA'S "LHCHAMBER MUSIC")

RASCOE: The collider near Geneva, Switzerland, is the world's most powerful particle accelerator, an example of humankind's most cutting-edge technology. But Schwartz points out that there is a long tradition of trying to make sense of the world through music.

SCHWARTZ: People have been doing this, we think, maybe since before there was even language. For example, Native American flute playing - one really common element in the traditional Native American flute playing is that someone would view a mountain line or the shape of a tree or the shape of a river or something, and they would try to create that type of shape in sound on the flute.

RASCOE: For their next project, Vicinanza and Schwartz hope to do a live duet with a whale using hydrophones to capture the animal's sounds. They say they're driven by a desire to deepen our understanding of the world and to give people a way to appreciate the beauty all around us, even if it's underground, underwater, or in this case, unimaginably far away.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMENICO VICINANZA'S "VOYAGER INTERSTELLAR MUSIC")

RASCOE: To play us out, a piece of music inspired by data gathered by NASA's Voyager 1 space probe between 1977 and 2012, the year it left our solar system and entered interstellar space.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMENICO VICINANZA'S "VOYAGER INTERSTELLAR MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.