Ben Sollee art project uses music to educate about groundwater

December 9, 2014

solleeLexington musician Ben Sollee and artist Kiersten Nash are leading an art project called Livestream to educate people about groundwater. Photo by Tom Eblen

Groundwater is one of Kentucky’s most abundant, precious and endangered natural resources. People rarely think about it because they can’t see it.

But what if they could hear it?

That’s the idea behind Livestream, a public art and education project being put together by Lexington musician Ben Sollee and a group of artists and scientists working with the Kentucky Geological Survey.

The National Endowment for the Arts last week announced a $40,000 grant to help pay for the project, which will be built next year in a city park, possibly Jacobson Park. Livestream also is receiving about $20,000 from LexArts and the city’s Department of Environmental Quality and Public Works.

The project began in 2010 when Sollee met Kiersten Nash, a New York artist who previously lived in Louisville. They wanted to collaborate on a project that would educate people about environmental issues.

“After lots of phone calls and ideas and brainstorming, we came up with this idea that we wanted to connect people with groundwater,” Sollee said. “But the question was how are we going to do that?”

How they plan to do that is fascinating.

The Kentucky Groundwater Data Repository, a project of the Kentucky Geological Survey, archives data from groundwater monitoring stations across the state. It has information on more than 92,000 water wells and 5,100 springs.

So the artists wondered: what if monitoring data from a few of those wells and springs could be transmitted live and turned into music that would reflect the groundwater’s changing conditions? To figure out how to do that, they worked with artist Bland Hoke, engineer Sean Montgomery and educator Dan Marwitt.

Sollee, who has gained a national audience for his jazzy, soulful cello music and vocals, recorded a catalog of phrases on his cello. Those phrases will be activated by monitoring data transmitted every 15 minutes from four groundwater sources around the state, said Charles Taylor, the head of the survey’s water resources section.

Two stations will be at McConnell Springs in Lexington and Mammoth Cave National Park in southern Kentucky. Two other sites under consideration are a spring at Carter Caves State Park in Eastern Kentucky and one at Land Between the Lakes in Western Kentucky.

That data measures five values for groundwater: acidity, flow, temperature, conductivity (its capacity to pass electrical current) and turbidity, or clarity. Values of each measure will be assigned to Sollee’s recorded cello phrases, which will be played through 20 large pipes.

“When the data hits a certain point, it will play the note, so it’s a dynamic soundscape based on Kentucky groundwater,” Nash said in July, during a demonstration of a prototype at the Downtown Arts Center. The demonstration used recorded groundwater data.

“As a composer, I wanted to be able to give the sound of the water something that felt very at home here in Kentucky, that had that kind of landscape, a little bit of roll to it,” Sollee said of his phrases.

The installation will be interactive with viewers as well as data. Sensors installed around the pipes will cause the volume to rise and fall, depending on viewers’ proximity.

“So as you walk up to the pipe the volume increases, and as you walk away the volume decreases,” Nash said. “It’s really a project where art, science and technology meet.”

LexArts and the city have collaborated on several smaller art projects to promote environmental education, but this is the biggest yet.

Livestream’s creators see potential for school teachers to develop environmental education programs around the installation. More information:

“Kentucky’s in a really fortunate position — we have groundwater, an abundance of it, but we take it for granted and don’t always treat it right,” Sollee said, noting the effects of surface mining, suburban development and farming. “We hope this will increase affection for that resource.”

April events look at environmental challenges in different ways

March 16, 2013

You can feel it in the air: Winter’s last gasp is starting to give way to warm sunshine. The Bluegrass countryside is returning to life, raising spirits after months of cold and gray.

Spring reminds us how closely we are tied to nature, despite all of our technology and hubris. Earth doesn’t care about our political ideologies, and it has become less forgiving of our greed and foolishness.

If you are interested in what is happening to the planet, and what can be done about it, mark your calendar for the first week of April. That is when Kentucky hosts a series of lectures and conferences that look at our environmental challenges from different perspectives.

Charles Mann, an award-winning science writer for Atlantic Monthly, Science and Wired magazines, will speak at 7 p.m. on April 2. Mann is author of two best-selling books, 1491 and 1493, which look at what North America was like before Columbus landed and how European settlement began to change it.

1491-by-Charles-MannThe lecture, in Worsham Theatre at the University of Kentucky Student Center, is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. They can be picked up at the Student Center ticket office, room 253, and room 200B of the Kentucky Tobacco Research Development Center, 1401 University Drive.

Mann’s lecture sets the stage for an academic conference April 3-4 about the growing problem of invasive species and how climate change is affecting their spread. Kentucky is increasingly plagued by invasive species, such as bush honeysuckle and Asian carp, that do costly ecological damage.

UK’s Climate Change Group presents a public forum at 7 p.m. on April 4, with three guest speakers discussing global warming from different perspectives. The forum in the UK Student Center ballroom is free and open to the public.

The first speaker is Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, evangelical Christian and author of the book, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. She will talk about the faith-based imperative for addressing climate change.

“The reality is that climate change is about thermometers and trend lines, not Republicans or Democrats,” she wrote in a 2010 essay for The Washington Post. “It’s about what has been happening on our planet since the Industrial Revolution, not whether the earth is 6,000 or 4 billion years old. It’s about fundamental science that’s been around for hundreds of years, not specious theories that haven’t a prayer of being proven.”

The second speaker is retired Brig. Gen. Steve M. Anderson, a self-described conservative who will talk about the national security implications of climate change and his belief that the military must develop renewable sources of energy.

The program’s final speaker is Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina and president of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His talk is called, “Free Enterprise Approaches to Energy Security and Climate Change.”

Inglis served six terms in the U.S. House and had a 93 percent rating from the American Conservative Union until Tea Partiers challenged him in the 2010 primary. The main issues were that he believes the scientific consensus that man’s actions are contributing to climate change, and he backed a market-based plan to reduce carbon emissions.

After being defeated, Inglis had this to say about the GOP and its Tea Party faction: “It’s a dangerous strategy to build conservatism on information and policies that are not credible.”

The three presentations will be live-streamed at

WendellBerryA final conference, which has attracted the most well-known national figures, is sponsored by The Berry Center in New Castle, revisiting Kentucky writer Wendell Berry’s influential 1975 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture.

Tickets are sold out for this conference, which is April 5 at Louisville’s Brown Hotel and April 6 at St. Catharine College near Springfield, but there is a waiting list in case of cancellations. More information:

The Unsetting of America was a collection of essays in which Berry criticized modern industrial agriculture’s damage to land and water, as well as rural communities and economies. This conference will discuss possible remedies. Participants include Berry, journalist Bill Moyers and environmental writers Bill McKibben and Michael Pollan.

As rites of spring go, these discussions could be a good start.