Flow: A Player Piano As Big As A House, With A River As Music Roll

This mill house on the River Tyne reads water and synthesizes it into music.

There’s data everywhere, especially in natural water. You can see it in the eddies and currents, the color and the viscosity. Yet how much are we missing, all the time? How many details are too granular (or quite literally microscopic) for us to appreciate?


~Flow is a project by Ed Carter from the Arts Council England and Simon Blackmore from Owl Project. It’s a mill house, moored on the River Tyne, that uses the river’s energy along with some brilliant “electro-acoustic” musical instruments to create music from nature–what’s effectively a huge, laser- and synth-powered chemistry set. It’s sort of like a huge player piano that reads water instead of music.

“The idea for ~Flow grew out of a range of interconnected themes. The initial concept surrounded ideas of harnessing natural energy, and responding to the constantly changing symbiotic relationship between society and its waterways,” Carter tells Co.Design. “We wanted to reflect the constantly evolving environment in the river, including the power it can provide.”

The ecosystem of the River Tyne entered a downward spiral during the industrial revolution. Now it’s recovering, but visitors to ~Flow can actually hear the pollution in the water through one of its many instruments, a 3-channel “Bubble Synth.” Three large flasks measure nitrate, oxygen and pH levels, then synthesize music in response to the information. “There should be little or no nitrates in the river,” explains Blackmore, “however, excessive use of fertilizers causes this pollution as it can get washed from fields.” The Bubble Synth is functionally an alert system without the sirens.

~Flow’s other musical mechanisms are just as clever. The “Turbidatron” generates sounds according to the turbidity (or murkiness) of the water. “It uses a series of gears, cranks, and pistons to suck water out of the river and circulate it around a series of containers, creating a continuous live sample,” explains Blackmore. “A laser is projected through the sample which detects tiny suspended particles of debris, mud, silt, algae, etc and turns this to sound.” (It’s quite similar to a laser record player.) Meanwhile, the Salinity Sampler Sequencer measures the saltiness of the water by hour, while custom circuitry converts this saltiness to a pitch. The resulting mechanism can play an opus of the last 12 hours of salinity levels.

Thus far, ~Flow has been a successful attraction, with over 10,000 visitors in the first month. If you’re not in the area, you can still explore ~Flow’s results on the web, but sadly, it doesn’t appear that you can actually listen in.

[Hat tip: Visual News]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.