Activism through Composition: Creating Music with Data

Leagues of Breaking Light, Melbourne Fringe Festival. (L-R) Matthew Horsley percussion; Robert Macfarlane tenor voice; Miranda Hill double bass; Mirren Strahan violin. Image supplied.
Species 3. Rhododendron beesianum by Naima Fine (2015) from the doctorate Climate-driven change in Himalayan Rhododendron phenology by Dr Robbie Hart.
Leagues of Breaking Light concert at the Melbourne Fringe Festival 30 September 2018, Mirren Strahan, violin. Photo by Naima Fine.
Gabby O'Connor, What Lies Beneath. Tissue paper, dye, lacquer, staples. Installation view at City Gallery Wellington, 2014.
Creatively highlighting environmental issues, composer and ecologist Naima Fine shares how she created sound art out of climate change data. By Andrea Simpson


At first glance, ecology and musical composition appear to have few commonalities; one is the biological study of organisms and their environment while the other is the practice of music creation.

However, according to composer and ecologist Naima Fine of collaborative group Fine Fine Small Mountain (active from 2014-2017), the two studies could not have better informed her unique arts practice. By fusing the two disciplines together Fine was able to auralise data which held important environmental messages in a series of classical compositions performed by an ensemble.

‘I found working on this project was so satisfying,' Fine reports. 'Even though I wasn’t involved in any of the ecology work, I was able to interpret the work because of my ecologist background.’

Fine is passionate about environmental sustainability and social justice. ‘I think artists have a responsibility to present and provoke through our individual work,’ she says. By amalgamating ecology and music, Fine hopes to be able to bring wider awareness to climate change.

Created in 2015 while Fine was an artist-in-resident in rural China, Leagues of Breaking Light was conceptualised using data from a newly completed study called Climate-driven change in Himalayan Rhododendron phenology by Dr Robbie Hart.

The study was focused on the response of organisms to climate change, specifically the phenology of the Himalayan Rhododendron flowers that grew on Mt. Yulong, China. 

‘I spoke with Dr Hart and he directed me towards certain parts of his research that he thought would be interesting to reinterpret,’ Fine explains.

‘He has been really supportive and collaborative – directing me to a certain path, allowing me to create my own graphs from his work.’


Fine, who has played the cello and the flute from a young age, studied composition at the Queensland Conservatorium before traveling to the Northern Territory/Kakadu to join an environmental activist campaign – the Jabiluka anti-uranium mine blockade – and went on to study ecology.

Her experiences helped to shape her ideas and approach to this project.

‘I took four different approaches with this project. One of them was pretty literal,’ she said.

For one interpretation Fine transformed the y axis and the x axis of the graph and turned it into musical properties of pitch and time.

'You read everything from left to right – so the x axis is the time and the y axis is the pitch. And then I translated the dotted points into pitch points.

'In another approach, I looked at a few different representations of the same flower,’ Fine says. ‘The research had tracked 10 different species and I created gestural shapes of what was happening within the data.’

Fine translated the data onto a manuscript with different note types presenting different types of data points for each flower.

Fine approached the last two interpretations with more creative flair. ‘The two other approaches weren’t so data specific. With one of them I did a botanical drawing of each of the species that we studied – it became graphic scores which don’t have any interpretation instructions from me. So they are completely up to the performers to interpret.

'And then in the last approach I did a conventionally notated work – I translated a quote that I really liked into Mandarin and set both languages into a piece.' 

Leagues of Breaking Light premiered at the 2018 Melbourne Fringe Festival and was performed by tenor Robert Macfarlane (Australian Bach Society), Kim Tan on Chinese flute (Forest Collective), Matthew Horsley on percussion (Trioc), Mirren Strahan on violin (MeatBrain), Katherine Philp on cello (Camerata), and Miranda Hill on double bass (Homophonic!).

The work allowed Fine to contribute to the conversations on climate change, in the hope it will activate extended dialogue and amplify the discourse on environmental sustainability. Leagues of Breaking Light will be released as a multi-media album in 2019.

'There’s often social tension between the marginalisation and the valuing of artists. I think this is partly because speaking out is inherent to the creative process. 

'Individually and collectively, artists have always helped great change happen. Right now, we are so needed. Let’s use everything we have to help educate, inspire others to act, and affect all the change we can,' Fine said.


This story was first published by our Ozzy friends at Artshub on 2 November 2018. Andrea Simpson is ArtsHub's Feature Writer and Reviews Editor. Thank you ArtsHub!

Editor's note: There's some exciting New Zealand artists concerned with education, activism and climate change - for example, take a look at Gabby O'Connor's (pictured below) and Nic Moon's work, and find out more on the topic from Track Zero's creative platform for collaboration between the arts and science.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

22 Feb 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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