The Biological Mixer

By Sarah Moss.

Dr Nigel Helyer, also known as Dr Sonique, has a fascination with data sonifications.  “I’ve done quite a lot of projects where I build a really big audio library, maybe in certain categories,” he said. “It might be environmental sounds, local music, aural history archival sounds or from early radio in that area. You create the material to make an audio portrait but then I link that through a computer system to data collection software.”

The Biological Mixer from ABC Open Sth Coast & Tablelands on Vimeo.

For example, Dr Helyer has been working in Tasmania at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) with Dr Mary- Anne Lea. Dr Lea and Dr Helyer take massive data sets collected by southern elephant seals wearing bio-logging devices on their backs. These four-tonne seals dive two kilometres under the ice cap and make four or five kilometre trips, mapping the ocean conditions under the ice cap, where no-one can go.

“We are turning these huge data sets into music because musicians are like data recognition machines,” Dr Helyer explained.

“Their discipline allows them to communicate between each other in real time and look at these very complex things and interpret them as music. “So, we’ve been turning the data into graphical scores and letting musicians interpret the graphical scores.”

Data mapping the underwater world.
The idea of taking data and responding to it or sonifying it — extracting the structure from the natural flow — is something Dr Helyer is familiar with. “Data taken from natural environments has been a strong theme for me,” he said. “One of the things we are doing is making the most exquisite maps of the under-ocean environment, with the data hanging down in streams as visual representations. “In a concert scenario, we display one of these beautiful evolving maps, and on another screen, we show a graphical representation of two or three or four streams of data that musicians can respond to.” The seals are the unwitting collaborators.

“They’ve got this thing literally glued on the back of their neck. They moult every year so it’s only on there for a year.,” Dr Helyer explained. “They are small and the seal is six meters long so it basically doesn’t know it’s there.”

Under the Icecap from Nigel Helyer on Vimeo.

Love of the sea from early age.

Dr Helyer confesses that he is a water baby and grew up in a small farming fishing village in the UK. “The ocean’s always been significant for me. My father died when I was quite young. My mother was concerned about me going AWOL so she packed me off to sail training school with the Royal Navy, which was pretty confronting for a young boy — adults who shouted and made you do things quickly in tricky situations on boats,” he said. “The following year I got my first 12-foot wooden boat that I used to sail and do all sorts of dangerous things in. I didn’t really look back from there.”

“Marine life has always been a big background for me and in reality, I’ve never lived anywhere that far from water. I’ve been quite fortunate in that I’ve been able to combine that interest with my work on many occasions.
In the case of the Cray Boat or the recent Biopod project — a floating recording studio — there’s always been that kind of element in my work. It’s really because it’s driven by a personal interest; it keeps me engaged.”

Dr Helyer completed an honours degree in sculpture in Liverpool, in the UK in an era when a person could do almost anything. He studied hydroponics and explosives — that ‘wacky stuff’ which you are supposed to do at art school. After a couple of years’ break, Dr Helyer went on to attend The Royal College, studying in a department called Environmental Media — an early experimental media studio and an offshoot of sculpture. A week after graduating, he left the country.

Dr Helyer is concerned with issues that arise from his interest in the ocean. “Walking along the coast of Jervis Bay it looks gorgeous. It can be any kind of weather, windy, moody, a beautiful sunset or something like that, it just looks fabulous,” he said. “But in general, we use the ocean as a place to dump stuff — a place we pull resources out of: mining, oil extraction, a transport route etc. We do all kinds of terrible things to the ocean and we can destroy its structure. Our activities are contributing to heating it up right now and it’s becoming more acidic. You can’t see acidification and so the issue with this is how do you make work which helps people understand? Those projects for me are quite important — to be able to make a message come across in poetic ways, not to appear to be too heavy-handed.”

Dr Helyer currently has a three-year Australian research grant collaboration with Macquarie University and Bundanon Trust. He is extending his professional practice with the environmental and cultural mapping project and as part of that, he is also producing a sound sculpture installations for them.

The Land of Milk and Honey from Nigel Helyer on Vimeo.