These Bells Play Seismic Shifts

Watch as UC Berkeley’s bells play the earth’s “natural frequencies”

UC Berkeley Campanile Light & Music Show (1-minute version)

The Bay Area loves to talk about “the big one”—a huge earthquake scientists have long predicted will hit somewhere along California’s San Andreas Fault system. But smaller earthquakes and seismic shifts happen all the time, too. Now an art installation at UC Berkeley has used the earth’s “natural frequencies” to make real-time music tied to seismic data.

When it came time to celebrate a century of UC Berkeley’s famous bell tower, three Berkeley professors took inspiration from the gentle sway of the Hayward Fault, which runs directly beneath the campus. Laura Sydell reports for NPR that a roboticist, a composer and an artist joined forces to create a real-time light and bell show composed by the shifting earth:

[Composer Edward Campion] says when he was asked to “have the earth play the bells at Berkeley,” he couldn't resist.

“Music has always responded to and been made with the emerging technologies of the time,” he says. “The bells come from the Middle Ages, but we’re in the present and we work with data ... so it’s absolutely natural for data to be used as a music-making material.”

To make the music, Campion and his partners obtained real-time data from Berkeley’s Seismological Laboratory, which monitors earthquake activity throughout Northern California, then used a specially-designed computer program to trigger the historic bells. The data visualization project garnered big crowds during three ten-minute performances that turned the earth’s subtle shifts into music.

But though the word “California” has long been synonymous with “earthquake,” that reputation is changing quickly. A new report shows that in fact, Oklahoma had more earthquakes than California in 2014—and it’s poised to beat out all other states in seismic activity this year, too.

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