Artist blog: Miriam Quick

I was honoured to be commissioned to transform the Slow the Smoke data into an artwork. While in my day job, I write data stories and help create charts and graphics, I enjoy exploring more unusual ways of working with data. My creative studio I have with Duncan Geere, Loud Numbers, uses a technique called data sonification to turn numbers into music tracks. And I’ve worked with air quality data creatively before – my 2015 project with Stefanie Posavec, Air Transformed, currently exhibited at Bletchley Park, turned air quality data from Sheffield into wearable necklaces and pairs of glasses.

So I was excited by the prospect of turning air quality data into a new sonic artwork, Bristol’s Burning.

Understanding local air quality

KWMC worked with community members living in and around Ashley Ward, in central Bristol, to install low-cost air quality sensors outside their houses. I accessed this data via the Open Data Bristol portal and used it, along with that gathered by Bristol City Council, to create the music track. 

I used the data on one kind of pollutant called particulate matter (PM10) from the 14 different sensors in Ashley Ward, over the course of the year from August 1, 2021 to July 31, 2022. As the sensors showed broadly similar readings over time, I took the average reading across all sensors and then the average by month – reducing hundreds of thousands of datapoints to just 12! This revealed that, on the whole, particulate levels are higher in the winter months.

Broadly speaking, air quality deteriorates in the winter in Ashley Ward and improves in the summer. This makes sense, because people tend to drive their cars and light their woodburners more in the winter when it’s cold outside. Also, cold air sinks and traps air pollution near to the ground, especially when there’s little wind (as in January and March 2022). 

Transforming the data into music

This broad seasonal pattern is the focus of Bristol’s Burning. There are two main layers to the sonification. First, there’s a nasty-sounding drone that gets louder and harsher as the air gets dirtier in the winter (the data is mapped to the volume and cutoff of a low-pass filter). When the air quality is really bad, this drone gets so loud it dominates everything. And when the air cleans up again in the spring, the drone gets quieter and fades out.

Secondly, a dub track plays at the same time as the drone. I think of this music track as representing the people living in Bristol. When air quality gets really bad in the winter, it’s like the drone is drowning people out and stopping them from living their lives. Which is exactly what air pollution does, even at low concentrations: it makes us sick and stops us living our lives to the full.

Bristol artist T. Relly created the vocals and wrote the lyrics, which add lots of commentary and an invaluable human dimension to the data. We also recorded voices from members of the local community in St. Paul’s. In the track you can hear the names of the months spoken out loud (August, September and so on), like audio labels telling you what point you are at in the year. These were recorded by lots of different people, and I’m really grateful to all those who lent their voices to that.

Also, the points where you hear the bloodcurdling scream? That’s when daily levels of air pollution exceed the danger limit set by the World Health Organization. The scream was made by local children Arianne, Ashti and Astera, who were so loud they almost broke the mic!

Tools Used

I used RI used R Studio to clean, analyse and visualise the data, the Loud Numbers sonification module for the free online modular synthesis program VCV Rack to explore the data sonically and then the final sonification and music production was done in Logic Pro, Apple’s music software.

Listen to the interview with the artists here


Music track and data sonification: Miriam Quick
Lead vocals and lyrics: T. Relly
Recording engineer: Lewis Campbell
Mastering: Sorting Room Studios

Additional vocals: Afric Bruen, Arianne, Ashti, Astera, Helena, Harry McQuaid, Julia Bidoli, Kenya, Lataya

Thanks to: Annali Grimes, Cashell Smith, Duncan Geere, Eduardo Allen, Ella Chedburn, Martha King, Scott Piggott, James Quick, Kate Lindsay, Lucas Sweeney, Rob Bryher, Stephanie Burnham, Steve Crawshaw, Tom Allan, Ujima Radio, Open Data Bristol,, the people of Ashley Ward and Bristol.

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