Playing Attention

Production Notes for the Metered Tide by Chris Chafe and Greg Niemeyer

Article by Chris Chafe and Greg Niemeyer
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One of the oldest and longest running data sets concerns the Nile. Measured at the aptly named Nilometer, the record shows the high and low levels from 622 to 1921. But like all records, the data is incomplete. There are many missed entries, and even the data we do have describes but a tiny fraction of reality. We may learn that the low and high level in 1181 was 11.00 and 16.51 meters, but we would not know that those numbers meant that all of Egypt experienced a devastating famine that year because the river was too low to water the farmland.

The sea water level in San Francisco shows an average of -0.180 m for April 1906 and we would not know, without further context, how the Pelicans glided through the waves at that time, or how the residents of the city fled to the shore because the city was on fire after a major earthquake.

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Sitting by the dock of the Bay, we would see, today, that the city is rebuilt in new corporate and civic splendor, we would see the pelicans diving into the ocean to snatch their herrings, we would all see different things, just sitting there, but without further context, we would not know how much the sea level has risen since that last earthquake, or how much it will rise yet before the city becomes an island, a flooded wasteland, or a water castle.

Data both needs and provides context, and our attention helps us integrate these elements. Attention has two elements: perception and anticipation. Attention bridges perceptions and purpose, we want to know what happens and what happens next, and we want to know because we anticipate the development of a value. Attention bridges perception and desire.

When we look at a long record of sea water levels, we see two fundamentally different dynamics: the sea level changes caused by the varying gravitational pull of the moon, and the sea level changes caused by melting ice. The first dynamic is noticeable just by sitting on the aforementioned dock of the Bay, the second dynamic is supraliminal, above our threshold of perception, because we would have to sit by the dock of the bay for a hundred years to really see the sea change, and that timeframe exceeds our attention span. Here, data helps. The record of SF sea levels begins in 1854. Since then generations of workers conferred sea level data at exactly the same spot, a little house off a pier by the mouth of the Bay.

While the data is abstract, pulled away from the ocean in space and time, we can always go to the site where this abstraction was made and verify that indeed the levels are measured correctly. That kind of verification is a re-embodiment, a substantiation, the reverse of abstraction.

With Chris Chafe performing an interpretation of the full data record at the same site, we are conducting a similar kind of embodiment or substantiation. The cello at the sea, the tide lapping at his knee, Chafe is putting his body, his sensorium, and his instrument at sea level. By interpreting the long record, he reflects the data onto the surface of the water from which the data comes. He compresses the timeframe of the data from over a hundred years to just a few minutes, funneling the duration of the observation into a framework that matches our attention span. While much is left out from the record, something normally invisible comes into our range of perception: Like in a distorting funhouse mirror, one axis of the data, time, is compressed, but the dynamic relations of the other axis, sea water levels, are exactly the same. In this compression, new patterns become audible: The absolute sea level rise due to climate change and the impact of the El Niño events stand out against the noisy substrate of the data. Chris does not play the data literally, as in a music sonification, which transposes the data into the dynamic range of musical notes, frequencies, and durations. Instead, he produces a kind of backing track which gives him the overall structure of the data. He responds to that as a musician, interpreting the score.

For “The Metered Tide”, Chafe played seven versions, seven interpretations at the sea. I filmed all performances, but from different angles. When it came to selecting which “take” to use for a music video, Chafe made what I would call an “art move”. Instead of settling for one single take, he used the degree of volatility in the sea water changes as an edit cue to switch from one take to another. He called that an algorithmic montage. The more frequently extreme sea levels were recorded, the more frequently the audio and video switched from take to take. These cuts are a bit jarring. They ask us viewers to switch to a new point of view and a new musical interpretation.

Also at sea level, San Francisco's Playland-at-the-Beach featured a Hall of Mirrors made famous through Orson Welles' Lady from Shanghai (1947). At that time, the sea level was at -0.09 meters.

The Metered Tide (video)

To give this rocky ride a rail, I layered a spectral line display of Chafe's music on top of the video, exactly at the sea level. Like this, the actual sea level during the performance and Chafe's interpretation of 100 years of sea level changes merge at the horizon. This way, Chafe's performance takes the record (which is out of our time) back into our time (embodiment).

The resulting aesthetic pushes us into a state of recurring defamiliarization: we have to get used to a different reality, a different point of view. The rate of change is accelerating. As the cuts speed up, we need to do more and more work to integrate these different points of views. The hope is that we get good at it, get good at coping with rapid change.

It’s not enough to be “jarred” though. We need to organize the jarring impressions into a cohesive whole that makes sense again. We need to unite the jarring perception with our desire for harmony, for things to make sense, and again it is our attention that can unite perception and desire. So the impact experiential: The Metered Tide asks the viewer, the listener, to leverage their attention to bridge the gap between a broken record and an uncertain future. The hope is that we get good at it.

The pelicans, too, unite perception and desire with attention. They see a Herring in the water as they fly about 50 meters above sea level. They lock in on one, dive down to it on a straight path, a path they half imagine, half remember, and constantly adapt in small ways until they reach their prey. The seagulls in turn monitor the Pelican, hoping to catch a bit of the Herring spills, and the fellow Herring disperse because there is safety in numbers.

I would rather be a pelican than a herring when it comes to climate change, I would rather adapt than perish. The hope is that we all get good at it.

Greg Niemeyer, Berkeley, 2022 (Sea level at 0.050 meters)


15 February 2023
Review status
Editorial review
Cite as
Chafe, Chris, and Niemeyer, Greg. 2023. "Playing Attention." ECHO, a journal of music, thought and technology 4. doi: 10.47041/QWJT9788

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