What Does Beijing's Pollution Sound Like? NYC DJ Spins PM 2.5 Data into an Airpocalypse Soundtrack
Chai Jing may have made the quintessential Beijing smog documentary, but artist Brian Foo has now provided the soundtrack to our smoggiest of days.
“I wanted to create an experience for listeners anywhere to understand the level of pollution residents of Beijing experience on a regular basis,” Foo, a New York City-based programmer and visual artist, told the Beijinger about his song "Air Play", which filters industrial music through an algorithm based on historical Beijing pollution levels.
Environmtental Health News describes the track as a "brooding, eerie piece with music sampled from the American industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. A gloomy visual representing the cumulative impact of Beijing air quality on health adds to the mood.”
But don’t go calling Foo a peer of Trent Reznor’s just yet. He didn’t write, perform or even compose the song. Foo did, however, pen the algorithm that, according to his website, takes "pollution data and music samples as input and generates the song as output.”
Using three years' worth of data on Beijing’s smog levels, Foo's automated program created haunting noise rock rhythms that grow dense and then dissipate based on the rising and falling totals of Beijing's PM2.5 air particles.
“I wanted to find a way for someone to get emotional about patterns of environmental data through music," Foo said.
“There are many ways we should raise awareness for major issues, but I believe art forms like music help produce empathy for those affected," said Foo, who believes art projects are one of the best means to make complex data digestible. "Music is also very good at spreading ideas quickly to large groups of people.”
“Air Play” is the latest installment in Foo’s ongoing Data-Driven DJ series. A similar algorithmic was used to convert a seizure into a song with brainwave data from an epileptic child, and to represent income inequality on the NYC Subway. Foo only uses tracks that are free to use under the Creative Common license.
No word yet on what Reznor thinks about his music being enveloped by Beijing’s smog, though Foo believes the NIN frontman would approve.
“I believe he would be very pleased that his music is [being used] to raise awareness for environmental issues,” Foo said. “I hope that he would think the sounds of his songs—which are aggressive, dissonant, and dark— work perfectly with this type of data.”