Jonathan Middleton makes music about salmon migrating to the mountains

Jonathan Middleton has made his art together with researchers of biochemistry, agriculture and environmental science. At the University of Tampere, he cooperates with both researchers in information sciences and Finnish companies.

Jonathan Middleton has made his art together with researchers of biochemistry, agriculture and environmental science. At the University of Tampere, he cooperates with both researchers in information sciences and Finnish companies.

 An orchestral piece based on the DNA of a redwood tree.


An orchestral piece based on the DNA of a redwood tree.

Who would think about making music about salmon migrating up the Snake River? Who would think about composing the DNA of redwood trees for a symphony orchestra? Whose computer contains music about the Dow Jones Index or the amount of sunshine Tampere gets each month?

The correct answer to these questions is Jonathan Middleton, an artist and music professor from Eastern Washington University. He has just started working at the Tampere Unit for Human-Computer Interaction (TAUCHI) on a three-year research project funded by TEKES, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation.

Jonathan Middleton develops musical works based on raw data. Sometimes he also combines pictures or poems with the music. With Jeff Jones, who took panoramic photos of the mountains of Idaho, Middleton created an event for an orchestra and an art exhibition.

Topographical data of Red Hog Mountain in Idaho and other natural formations were developed into music and an orchestral piece, which people went to hear first. After the concert the audience visited the gallery exhibiting the photographs.

Professor Middleton carries a laptop and speakers. We find a quiet room where we can listen to some music. Music made from raw data is the first thing to come out of the speakers. The next sample is rich orchestral music for several instruments that he developed on the basis of data.

“In the United States, the government maintains a data bank to which researchers send DNA from different sources. I got the redwood DNA from the data bank and made a rough version for the music. I liked some elements of the rough version, which I developed further. This is how the orchestral piece Redwoods Symphony came about. The primary theme is played by a xylophone, percussion, keyboards and strings.”

He also lets me listen to a musical piece that was originally based on the graph from the Dow Jones Index.

Middleton’s data music turned into social activism because of the endangered Redfish Lake salmon. This population of sockeye salmon in the Snake River were in a tight spot in 2006 when they could not migrate easily over the dams in Washington and Idaho. Only three Redfish Lake salmon were left. They tried to migrate for nearly 1,400 kilometres in order to reach two thousand metres above sea level. The dams obstructed the salmons’ migration, and Middleton used the number of salmon that passed the dams each day as the basis for his music. He added Rupert Brooke’s poem called Heaven about fish to create additional themes for the music.

“This life cannot be All, they swear, For how unpleasant, if it were!”

“I gave the musicians the opportunity to play the musical codes for words they chose in certain places. For example, I wrote a musical chord for the words ‘secret’ and ‘wish’. Even though it references fish, Brooke’s poem is all about faith and hope.”

The Redfish Lake salmon story has a happy ending and three fish were enough to save the population.

Music about winds and the sun

Jonathan Middleton arrived in Tampere a month ago when the TEKES-funded research project at TAUCHI Research Center in the School of Information Sciences began. He has already used data from Tampere to make music.

“I used information on how much the sun shines in Tampere each month at various times of the day. You get the most sunshine in June and July. I was fascinated by this part of the data, not by the sunless months and hours, which were not interesting in the musical sense,” Middleton explains.

He added rhythm to the data, marked the small numbers as short notes and the big ones as long notes. Then he added a touch of blues.

“I am an American who likes classical music, but blues was the music that fit this data. I made a similar composition based on the direction the winds blow in Tampere in different months. Twenty-three days of northerly winds in January can sound great. I took three raw versions of data and intertwined them. I made a jazz combo out of the winds.”

Jonathan Middleton has made his art together with researchers of biochemistry, agriculture and environmental science. At the University of Tampere, he cooperates with both researchers in information sciences and Finnish companies.

New interactive products and services that come with sound are the objects of research in the TEKES-funded project. To begin with, solutions for the machine industry, wearable computing technologies, intelligent buildings and intelligent lighting combined with sound innovations are among the things that the project will focus on.

Jonathan Middleton has already let his imagination roam: perhaps the house could have sensors that feel the changes in the weather.

Professor Middleton will talk about his work on Friday 17 April at 15:00 in the Simspace (Pinni B2031) on the 2nd floor of the School of Information Sciences. His talk is titled Data Sonification with Musical Expression.

Text and photograph: Taina Repo