The first thing to say is that solar wind isn’t really wind at all, at least, not the kind of wind that blows off your shed roof or turns your umbrella inside out. Solar wind is actually a torrent of radioactive particles belched out by the Sun every day. As this article explains, the protons, neutrons, electrons and alpha particles are far from benign – if we didn’t have a protective magnetic field around the earth (the magnetosphere), the solar wind would strip our atmosphere and reduce it to a lump of cold rock, a bit like Mars. This solar wind is also responsible for the Auroras Borealis and Australis (the northern and southern lights) making it, like some enigmatic character in film noir, beautiful as well as deadly.
Helen White’s Solar Wind Chime uses data from this ceaseless radioactive flow to create enigmatic, astringent sound art works. The data is harvested by satellite and used to activate White’s wind chime sculpture, an elegant arrangement of aluminium tubes linked to the data collection software, like some Harry Bertoia sculpture jacked in to the Matrix. White’s piece works in real-time, responding to the variations (in speed, density and magnetic direction) in the solar wind rushing past the satellite, but this CDr from Every Contract Leaves A Trace collects three slices of the gathered data, highlighting different levels of activity in the particulate streams. The result is a trio of gorgeous deep-space chorales that coo and chant with freezing, metallic abandon.
Opener Relative Calm evokes memories of dozens of sci-fi B-movies with its blank-stare flying saucer hum, its luminous pulsations tapping into repressed memories of silver-suited life-forms descending an entrance ramp to face the ranks of paranoid military arrayed before it. Nevetheless, despite the pleasing frisson of these sonic qualities, the three cuts included in Solar Wind Chime ultimately resist any attempts to assimilate them into our worldview. True, the curvilinear sheen and protean oscillations recall Eliane Radigue’s Adnos series or some of Elizabeth Veldon’s long-form works. But here, the absence of any human sensibility responsible for the ongoing micro-quivers of the drone-beams acts as a shield against the listener’s anthropomorphism, instead allowing us to open ourselves to Solar Wind Chime’s bracing difference.
White’s sonification of a constantly changing dataset also shows just how much other supposedly data-responsive art is merely obfuscatory spectacle, from Ryoji Ikeda’s Supersymmetry, which reduces rigorous, decades-long research projects to hi-res mumbo jumbo, to the Information is Beautiful crowd and its obsession with flattening the emancipatory potential of big data into cutesy graphic design. Sure, the chilly weirdness of White’s work, not to mention the elegant funkiness of the chime apparatus itself, succeeds on an aesthetic level – the morphing overlapping tones of Action Region 9077 X5.7-Class Flare, for example, twist slowly around in frequencies capable of inducing heightened states and rearranging listeners’ mental circuitry, such is their disorientating impassivity. But in White’s unfashionable, explicitly-stated desire to communicate, Solar Wind Chime achieves a moral weight rarely attained by sound art. By making an intangible, invisible phenomenon audible, White enables us to take the first steps in comprehending this force that has the potential to destroy all human life, even as its source is the very thing that sustains us and makes that life possible. We are not just a green rock hanging in empty space after all. Life on earth is a constant negotiation with complex systems, interlocking and overlapping, both on our planet and within our solar system. Our understanding of these processes advances only slowly, but the realization is starting to dawn that perhaps there are other alternatives, ways of living that do not involve the colonization of people, systems, communities, resources. The Anthropocene is upon us. Perhaps a little humility is in order?