David Bowie is the king of musical reinvention; for over 40 years he has created a collection of music that is difficult to pigeon-hole. Composer Alexis Kirke and electronic music pioneer Martyn Ware came together to analyze the data of Bowie’s shape-shifting oeuvre and created musical sonifications from the data to gain a greater understanding of one of the music industry’s greatest chameleons.
Sonifications are audio displays of non-sound data, such as heart rate monitors. Kirke and Ware searched for patterns in Bowie’s album sales and lyrics to translate them into music. They picked through numerical data and did statistical analyses of elements such as emotional content of lyrics and the usage of major and minor keys to determine how the singer’s music has transformed emotionally over time. The pair used a scientific database to search for positive words in the lyrics and negative words, that was then expressed through a hyperspeed piano. Kirke explained to Wired Magazie:
The resulting music is almost textural in its effect — a little like Flight of the Bumble Bee for a robotic pianist! As the lyrics become more positive the pitch rises higher and higher, capturing the cycles of positivity.
Bowie’s international album sales data was translated into a electronic piece of music, with the pitch rising and falling in relation to the highs and lows of Ziggy Stardust’s career. When listening to the sonification, Kirke insists you can hear and understand what represents the peak in sales, which is ‘an almost painfully high pitch’ while the lowest notes ‘make one cringe a little bit because of what they represent’.
The duo created the project as part of the Victoria and Albert’s latest exhibition, David Bowie Is.