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: Livestreamky.com.

“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.”