ABOUT THE LIMINOPHONE
NAMING THE INSTRUMENT
"Limen, archaic Greek for 'harbor,' describes the shelter of a shoreline indentation; the commerce of a seafaring marketplace; the liminal space, created or natural, in which we transit through thoroughfares of existence.
"Phone, Greek for 'voice,' or a human sound, recognizes that this sonification of oceanographic data—the liminophone—is a means to sonify ocean data, in real-time, to give voice to the waters: the Singing Harbor.
"The Wilderness of Ocean, ever-changing, ever-moving, unconquerable, and unpredictable, is a great constant in human history. Each time we put a toe in the surf, we touch Odysseus' sea, drops of Heraclitus' river, Melville's ocean. We encounter not just the nearest body of water, but the wild, the unknown, and the great certainty of change.
CREATION OF THE SINGING HARBOR
"The Liminophone is a product of my seemingly incompatible passions for music and urban swimming. The first germ of an idea came to me when I was preparing to swim the 17.5-mile stretch of New York Harbor, from the Battery to Sandy Hook, New Jersey: what if I could perform a musical simulation of this six-hour watery sojourn—a Singing Harbor? I reached out to my colleague and friend Nick Didkovsky, whose algorithmic compositions I had performed, and asked if he could program a real-time composing instrument that would pull data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's storm-surge site (which I continue to rely on for meteorological and water-temperature data). It was my intention to travel with this instrument, swimming urban waterfronts around the NOAA network and then performing live with the water data afterwards. The following winter was my first round of regular swims in a surreal, frigid, winter ocean, and it was clear to me that this experience, sonified, would be a fascinating way to share my exhilaration and fascination with a landlubbing audience, raising an awareness of—and, potentially, a collective interaction with—the waters that surround us.
"Didkovsky was generous and genius in his design, and after much back-and-forth concerning the musical manifestation of data, The Liminophone was born.
"The Liminophone translates the physiological and psychological experiences of swimming into musical parameters. There are nine data metrics read at each NOAA station in the storm-surge network, with online updates every six minutes. Didkovsky's program, in his Java Music Specification Language (JMSL), linearly interpolates the online data every ten seconds between readings, to make the soundscape shift gradually. The shift from data metric to musical occurrence was generated through translation from scientific to psycho-physiological. The following is a short excerpt from the huge correspondence that generated The Liminophone:
Whatever one experiences over a long swim, or an intensely cold short swim, is the result of understanding current conditions, remembering conditions from other swims, comparing the two, and seasoning the result with the unknowns. In shorthand, here are the nine NOAA metrics, distilled down to a swimmer's experience:
-Predicted water level = scientific/experiential knowledge
-Observed water level = empirical/experiential knowledge
-Residual water level = margin of error, expectation of change, unknowability factor
-Wind speed = ease or challenge of conditions
-Wind direction = mood during swim
-Wind gusts = extremity of experience and moods
-Barometric pressure = all-around vibe, and/or psych-out factor
-Air temperature = mood before swim, expectation of post-swim
-Water temperature = changes focus from internal to external. Most dramatic and challenging feature.
"In short, the instrument creates glissandi between frequencies. Starting and ending frequencies are determined by water-level data; vibrato range and rate are set by water and air temperature; wind gust and direction dictate the wild-card of sound duration, and thus the speed of glissando. There is a lot more magic behind the beauty of how the data is sonified, thanks to Didkovsky.
"The instrument also generates short phrases for an accompanying live musician to use in structured improvisation, enabling anyone to play a duet with the Singing Harbor." —R.G.