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UVA professors will turn the movement of rivers into music

Professors Matthew Burner (L) and Ajay Limaye are collaborating on a project that will translate the movement of rivers into music. (Courtesy - Radio IQ)
Professors Matthew Burner (L) and Ajay Limaye are collaborating on a project that will translate the movement of rivers into music. (Courtesy - Radio IQ)

Matthew Burtner was raised in Alaska where he was fascinated by glaciers. As a professional musician, he was inspired to compose a symphony around the sounds of those massive mountains of ice that are now melting.

He found that this hour-long composition, played for an audience in New Mexico, moved listeners deeply.

This story was reported and written by Radio IQ

“We finished the piece after an hour of listening to glacier sounds, and hundreds of people out on this field in Santa Fe sat there for a long time in silence," he recalls. "We actually recorded the whole thing, so we timed the silence. It was 11 minutes – 11 minutes just listening to the sounds of the world around us and thinking about the glaciers.”

So when he heard about the National Science Foundation awarding a grant to a fellow professor at UVA – an expert on environmental science – he was intrigued. Ajay Limaye plans to use satellite data from around the world to figure out why rivers move the way they do.

“Satellites are really transforming the way we study the earth," he explains. "In a sense they’re giving us home movies of the earth, which can show us how landscapes change in incredible detail.”

Standing by the Rivanna River, Limaye tells why he and a team of graduate students will also review maps and other data compiled by state and federal agencies.

“Rivers in some way are just very convenient things to study, because they’re all around us. They flow through our cities and beautiful stretches of countryside. Rivers give us all these interesting patterns to look at: ripples and dunes, river bends, canyons, giving us so much eye candy to try and understand.”

He admits the movement of water may be random, but if he and his team find patterns, their work could be useful to agencies hoping to restore rivers.

“There are literally tens of thousands of dams, and while many of these dams have served important purposes, many are aging," Limaye says. "They’ve also had ecological impacts that in some cases have caused problems, and so as those dams come out, by coming up with a more data-centric idea of what a river bend is, we can have better restoration strategies for rivers.”

Which brings us back to composer Matthew Burtner. He hopes to translate Limaye’s discoveries into music.

“We’ve been listening to rivers through eco-acoustics and soundscapes for decades and studying their flow through the sound that they make, which is varied and beautiful and directly related to their meandering, but for the first time we’re going to be able to sonify the actual patterns of the rivers and be able to listen to rivers as musical sequences.”

Limaye, who is learning to play the piano, is thrilled by the chance to work with Burtner on his river music project.

“It’s so exciting to work with an actual pro and think about how the power of music could potentially help get science more accessible to people -- to think about music as something we can all appreciate, and that we can tap into. It can actually be a way to convey some of this beauty in a way that is not just equations and not just data but something that actually speaks to our soul and helps us understand the world around us.”

Over the next five years, they plan to analyze as many as a hundred thousand bends in rivers – to better understand what factors influence the way rivers move and to translate patterns into compelling music.