The Story of Storms

Popular media frames the event of snowfall as a happy or joyful occasion: the landscape is covered in a soft white blanket of precipitation, children make snowmen and go sledding, and we gather together in front of fireplaces with loved ones. This can easily be seen in music like Bing Crosby's A White Christmas and movies such as A Christmas Story and even National Lampoon's A Christmas Vacation.

For many who live in colder climates, however, winter precipitation can be anything but joyful. It can feel isolating, depressing, even terrifying. It can trap people (especially the elderly) in their homes, cause traffic accidents, and adversely affect those living with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Snowfall was composed to convey the apprehension, the sadness, and the fear that can be felt during these winter months through a method known as data sonification.

The Keweenaw county of Michigan, which is located in the state's upper peninsula, is famous for its immense yearly snowfall accumulation. It is not unusual for the area to receive greater than 300 inches of snow in a single winter season. County officials record the amounts of precipitation and make it available publicly on the county website. I took a section of this data from January and February of 2014 to form the basis of my piece. Each day would last for one measure, and the number of inches of precipitation would be the number of notes in any given measure. If there was 7" of precipitation in a day, then 7 notes would be played for the measure correlating to that day. More notes meant more precipitation, likely indicating worse weather. With the haunting, hollow sound of a harp playing harmonics augmented with a drum/bell synth, the apprehension and dread that people can feel during this inclement weather could be perceived. To help differentiate between days, I also added a low octave chord at the beginning of each measure. Not only did this help to separate days, but it also increased the overall tension. The addition of a low, distorted string drone whose gain was determined by the amount of snow actually on the ground on that day rounded out the piece.

I performed Snowfall publicly for the first time at the International Conference on Auditory Display at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan on June 13, 2018. In the interest of time, I used only two months of snowfall data to make for a four-minute piece. Playback included a surround speaker system and a video screen to display the data live as I performed the song. I received the award for Best Use of Sound from ICAD for my work on this project.

I have created an interactive version of Snowfall that generates a performance of the composition based on which year of data you choose; as the composition is performed, you can see the data in real-time. It is available by choosing the button below. Also below, you can listen to a recording of the live performance version.


Snowfall - Daniel Grayvold