The scale and frequency of gun violence can be difficult to comprehend, even if we know the statistics. Numbers and graphs do not tell a very human story, and the mountain of data evades understanding. The death toll grows unceasingly, with too many names to mention, too many innocent lives lost. And we can be sure that little will be done to stem the bloodshed, which continues unabated, in spite of our drilling.
We make available these Gun Violence Sonifications for any able marching band to perform free of charge. We hope that by making music out of the massacres, that there might someday be an end to them.
This piece covers the modern era of American mass shootings, beginning with the Columbine Massacre in 1999 and continues to the present day. The pedal tone represents the passing of time; each beat is one month. Each note of the melody corresponds to a mass shooting, defined as a shooting with 4 or more victims committed by a lone gunman in a public place.
One can hear how the early 2000s was a period of relative calm, in part due to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004. As the piece builds, the shootings become denser, and a dark melody forms. It seems this melody is unfinished. The tune stops abruptly only when we reach the end of the dataset. There have been several shootings since then, so this piece could potentially be extended indefinitely.
Each note of the melody represents a deadly incident where an AR-15 was used. The note pitch indicates the number of casualties (injured and deceased). A slow ascending bass progression marks the passing of time. Each beat represents one week, so every four beats is roughly a month. Eighth notes and triplets indicate multiple AR-15 incidents in one week.
The two very high notes represent the Pulse Shooting and the Las Vegas Massacre, where the number of victims were orders of magnitude higher than the rest and would have been impossible to play on most instruments.
This piece charts the rise in gun manufacture since the late 1980s. Four overlapping plots are heard - pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns - played in succession with each measure representing a year, and each note's pitch assigned according to the number of guns produced in that year. The early 1990s crime wave can be heard as a series of higher pitches, which are superseded later in the piece by even higher notes from the 2010s. The original sonification was used as musical material to produce the marching band compositions.
These sonifications were commissioned by Hito Steyerl for the film Drill at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. The sonifications were composed by Jules LaPlace and realized on the synthesizer by Bethany Barrett. These scores were then arranged for the Yale University Precision Marching Band by Prof. Thomas Duffy, the marching band director, and Antonio Medina, drum major and president of the band, and performed at the Armory. The project was coordinated by Ayham Ghraowi, Assistant Dean for Research and Public Projects at the Yale School of Art.
The sonifications were realized using a custom tool which maps CSV data to MIDI notes. Parameters such as root note, note range, and pedal tone are used to control the output. The concept of musical modes informs each sonification, where slight variations in musical scale create a different feel for the data. Microtonal scales are available using the Scala format. The composer edits the sonification in realtime, and can hear it in various ways. The notes can be played back using a sampled kalimba, or sent to a synthesizer using Web MIDI, or exported as a MIDI file for further manipulation. The MIDI was turned into basic sheet music using MuseScore 2 and the final arrangements were done in Sibelius 8.
Two basic algorithms were used. The first algorithm maps a table of numbers to a series of notes, where each row becomes a measure and each column a note. The second algorithm acts like an event timeline, where a pedal tone marks time, and each note on top corresponds to an individual event, with the note value corresponding to number of casualties. Multiple events with a short timespan become polyrhythms, emphasizing density as well as intensity.
We developed the software during Summer 2018 to create sonifications of income inequality for Hito's work Power Plants/Actual Reality OS, which was presented at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The software was further refined in Fall 2018 to create these gun violence sonifications. The synthesized versions were performed by Bethany Barrett using the Roland J8-XP and the Behringer DeepMind 12 analog polysynths. The orchestrations were performed by the full 120 piece marching band and recorded in January 2019. Drill opened at the Park Avenue Armory in June 2019 for one month.
Since recording these pieces, there have been over 250 mass shootings in the United States. 60 of those shootings happened during one month that Drill was showing at the Armory. In the last two days, there have been two major mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.
This work is dedicated to all the nameless dead, so many of them, who perish every day due to guns. We wish we could say all their names. We offer this humble requiem instead, a mortal aestheticization of gun violence. Woe to those who celebrate murder and glorify hate.
Berlin, 4 August 2019