Thursday 5 December 2019

Liffey’s hidden voice ‘rough as a badger’s arse’, scientists find

Dublin's River Liffey
Dublin's River Liffey
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

The River Liffey has been a frequent source of artistic inspiration - from Jack Yeats's paintings to Anna Livia Plurabelle, the centre of Joyce's 'Finnegans Wake'.

And now, after a year of intense research, a team of scientists has managed to "sonify and vocalise" the river, by taking detailed mineral samples and transforming their findings into a musical score.

In short, they have unearthed the hidden voice of the Liffey, which as it turns out, lacks some of the majesty and eloquence Joyce may have attributed to it. 

"When we listened to it, it was as rough as a badger's arse," said Sean Taylor, lead researcher of Softday. 

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"It did not sound nice at all. I know that when it comes to art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it did not sound good."

Mr Taylor and his business partner, computer scientist Mikael Fernstrom, encouraged members of the public to send them mineral samples from the Liffey over a 12-month period.

They also collected their own samples and analysed the mineral composition of the river.

Mr Fernstrom took this data and assigned values to musical notes with software he had created, and was able to convert the water samples into a score.

Softday presented the musical score, which it has named Uisce Salach (Dirty Water), to the Irish Chamber Orchestra which has “shaped” the score into something more aurally pleasing.

“Listening to the music for the first time was a bit like watching the birth of a child – you don’t know what to expect,” Mr Taylor said.

“We never know how it is going to sound. It was very rough, quite hard and aggressive.”

He said the more polluted the water is, the more aggressive, complicated and on occasion, melodic a piece can sound.

“You have more spikes in the water so that affects the sound,” he said.

“It was shocking some of the things that we saw in the water, we took a sample after the Liffey Swim and there was a significant amount of E coli.” 

Readings from the docklands showed spikes of arsenic.

“We think it may be from the hulls of ships when they were painted there,” he said.

The orchestra will perform Uisce Salach in Liberty Hall tomorrow night from 7pm.

Irish Independent

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