IDEAS Performance Installations: Erasure and Hearing Seascapes

Coral reefs with automated identification of coral species (color overlays)


Date: 2018-02-08
Time: 5p pre; 5:30p talks
Location: Calit2 Theater, Reconfig Media Lab, SunCAVE - all in Atkinson Hall, UC San Diego

Guest Speaker: Jacob Sundstrom, Anthony Vine, Vid Petrovic, Lauren Jones, and Stella Koh
Artists, Erasure and Hearing Seascapes

Host: IDEAS Performance Series


In spring 2017, UC San Diego Music professor and former Qualcomm Institute composer in residence Lei Liang and QI's professor of visualization and virtual reality, Falko Kuester, organized a unique seminar called “Hearing Seascapes: A Collaborative Seminar on the Sonification of Coral Reefs.” It provided graduate students from the music and engineering departments with an opportunity to develop interdisciplinary projects on the topic of coral reefs. Out of that seminar course emerged two multimedia performance works developed by groups of graduate students who will premiere their installations simultaneously in two venues in Atkinson Hall on the UC San Diego campus. The immersive works include:

  • Erasure, an ambitious, large-scale multimedia installation produced by a robust collaboration among Computer Music Ph.D. student Jacob Sundstrom, Computer Science and Engineering Ph.D. student Vid Petrovic, Music Performance Ph.D. student Fiona Digney, and Ph.D. student in Musical Composition Anthony Vine; and
  • Hearing Seascapes, which combines coral reef imagery and audio data to generate sound based on the location and viewpoints of endangered coral reefs, a work by Lauren Jones, a Master's student in Vocal Performance, and Computer Music Ph.D. student Eunjeong Stella Koh, both at UC San Diego.

Hearing Seascapes will be staged in the new SunCAVE virtual-reality (VR) space, and Erasure in the Reconfigurable Media Lab, both on the first floor of QI's Atkinson Hall. The installations will be open for viewing starting at 5pm in the Reconfigurable Media Lab (RML) and the SunCAVE VR display system in the Immersive Visualization Lab. Then, at 5:30pm, Music professor Lei Liang will introduce both teams of artists in the Calit2 Theater, with short artist talks about both pieces. Following the talks, guests may resume viewing the separate installations at 6:00pm simultaneously as the public reception begins.

“Over the last several decades, coral reef ecosystems have suffered significant impacts from both local and global factors,” according to Jones and Koh. “We aim to convey important messaging to the audience and illuminate data that show the declining health of oceans’ coral reefs.”


Through an interconnected network of three-dimensional photomosaic models of coral reefs and spatially and/or electronically processed percussion sounds, a metaphorical ecosystem forms and responds directly to human presence and the temporal history of that presence throughout the work’s existence.

Automated process for tagging coral reefs with color overlays to identify different coral species.

Erasure responds ‘negatively’ to human presence in the installation environment. As more and more people enter the space, the installation begins to break down: the sonic tapestry of percussion sounds contort and particulate, the synthetic biome of coral visualizations begin to morph into unnatural forms, and the entire system mutates with the presence of the audience. Audience members are aesthetically confronted with their impact on these remote and fragile ecosystems.  The transformation, though, is not irreversible nor unidirectional: as viewers leave, the piece rebounds, albeit slower than the rate at which it was broken. In this way, it provides hope: the system ‘bounces back’ from the immediate and long-term human impact, reflecting the resilience of the reefs to withstand and adapt to global shifts in climate and the ecosystem.

The visual component of Erasure consists of three-dimensional photomosaic models of coral reefs taken from the 100 Island Challenge. These digital reproductions were created in collaboration with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Calit2's Qualcomm Institute by rigorously photographing and collecting data from coral reef sites and rendering that data into a three-dimensional visual form using custom-built software—developed by Vid Petrovic—to observe these reefs from various angles, light levels, and distances. In Erasure, these coral reef constructions ebb and flow between their ‘natural state’—meticulously constructed synthetic ecosystems—and transformative states: from granulations of the stony corals and polyps into whirling cascades of particles, to fissions of vast reef colonies into splintered slabs that recede in and out of focus. All the while, lingering traces of the piece in its ‘untouched’ state float amongst the remains, the metaphorical ecosystem dreaming and longing for an undisturbed state.

The sound-space of ERASURE is created from a reservoir of percussion improvisations that both reflect the sounds that might be found in and around a coral reef environment, as well as poetic expansions that reach beyond this palette of oceanic utterances: scraped and struck limestone tiles, sweeping washes of hands streaked across a bass drum, and the murky drones of rolled bell plates. By manipulating these samples in a simple causal network, emergent behavior materializes to constitute a lush atmosphere of sound. In this way, the emergent behavior of the sound world is not unlike the behavior found in reef ecology: masses of small units combining to create a complex and rich environment.


“Music can bring an image to life, and by giving a voice to the coral reefs, we can help the audience make an emotional connection to ecology and realize the fragility of these reefs,” said Lauren Jones. “The goal of this project is to create an immersive experience for the viewer that allows them to submerge themselves in the world of the coral.”

3D laser scan of coral reef featured in Hearing Seascapes.

As viewers use a joystick to ‘dive’ and explore the reef, and they control the location, viewpoint, depth and speed of navigation. Audience members hear different sounds that represent different species in the data set. Each species will have its own specific personality (represented by different sounds). “Coral reefs are living, breathing organisms that are vulnerable to small changes of the surrounding environment and climate,” explained Stella Koh. “We assign the coral reefs a distinct personality by examining certain characteristics such as texture, habit, origin and growth. To convey messages through music, we’ve recorded an underwater dialogue of voices.” Indeed, the installation was designed to induce conversation between coral reefs and a fish maneuvering through the reefs, and the sound will become louder or softer depending on how far away it is from the coral.

Jones and Koh set for themselves three goals with Hearing Seascapes: to display experiments with different aspects of sound and innovative graphic design to create an enjoyable environment for the audiences; to tell an effective and interactive story invoking concepts of adventure, imagination and humor to motivate people to recognize environment health; and to create an inviting seascape with a synergy of voices, images, synthesized sounds and human emotion.

“Based on the notion of acoustic ecology, we want to bring out the positive aspects of sound in the ocean environment,” they noted, “and we hope to highlight the importance of engaging in the soundscapes of coral reefs in hopes that our musical voice can make scientific results more accessible to society.” 



Fiona Digney is a Music Ph.D. student in Performance at UC San Diego under advisor and Music professor Steven Schick. She is currently a member of the red fish blue fish ensemble and is active in both the Music and Theatre departments at UC San Diego.

Vid Petrovic is a Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego. He received a B.S. in Computer Science and M.S. in Computer Graphics and Visualization from UC Irvine. His research focuses on developing a system that visualizes LIDAR laser-scanning data to create 3D replicas of sites including coral reefs for the 100 Island Challenge and shipwreck sites for the Bermuda 100 Challenge.

Jacob Sundstrom is a Ph.D. student in Computer Music at UC San Diego. Earlier, he studied music and philosophy at UC San Diego, and music at the University of Washington. Although trained as a composer, Sundstrom has worked on installations, visual, glitch, data bending, and recently, EEG-based art. His work tends to focus on the friction between and among media, performer(s), and process: using the process against the performers, the process against the medium, the medium against the performers, and vice versa.

Anthony Vine is pursuing a Ph.D. in Musical Composition in the Music department at UC San Diego. He received a Master’s degree from the University of Washington, and his undergraduate degree from The Ohio State University. The composer and guitarist’s music is characterized by carefully sculpted fragile landscapes, static networks of microtonal harmony, and strong influences from visual artists and choreographers. Vine is the winner of the 2016 Gaudeamus Prize, 2015 Jerome Fund Commissioning Award, 2015 Salvatore Martirano Memorial Composition Award, and the NPR/Q2 Radio Top Composers under 40 (2011), among other honors. 

Hearing Seascapes

Lauren Jones is pursuing her Master’s degree in Vocal Performance at UC San Diego. She engages in diverse performance settings including opera, songwriting, contemporary and experimental music, jazz and improvisation. She recently performed in Stephanie Richards' Phantom Station Conduction Series, and in UC San Diego graduate dancer and choreographer Aurora Lagattuta’s dance theater project, hOlie luna. (Lagatutta is also one of the artists behind January’s IDEAS performance in the Qualcomm Institute.)

Eunjeong Stella Koh is a Computer Music Ph.D. student at UC San Diego who completed her Master's degree at Seoul National University in South Korea. She is interested in computational thinking in music, studying music with emotion, and building tools for users to create interesting music.


Open to the public, admission free. No registration required.


5:00pm Erasure and Hearing Seascapes installations open to visitors
5:30pm Music Prof. Lei Liang introduces both teams of artists, followed by artist talks
6:00pm Both installations reopen for viewing; public reception begins in entry hall in front of the Calit2 Theater.