Ciaran Frame

composer/media artist/sound designer

Composer, Media Artist, Sound Designer


Thallus is a generative music notation system based on lichen in the arctic circle. It provides a means to ‘perform’ the many diverse communities of lichen found underfoot in the environment of Kilpisjärvi in Northern Lapland, Finland. Scores are generated on a per-performer basis, and are based on the synthesis of traditional notation with lichen samples from the environment.

A performance of Thallus involves a generative process that includes performer interaction before an actual performance may occur. Chronologically, this covers:

  1. Performer survey - collects basic performer preferences surrounding methods of reading and interpreting lichen as musical notation

  2. Extrapolation of performer preference - machine learning is used to model various scenarios of score generation based on survey results

  3. Score generation - scores are generated based on performer preferences, both at an individual and ensemble level

  4. Performance - performers interpret generated scores

Thallus was created with the driving principle of consistent interpretation that allows for sonic comparisons of Arctic lichen, and thus a window into changing Arctic environments. A survey of current research led to a greater desire for retaining integrity and consistency in performer interpretation within the field of graphic notation and sonification of natural data. Graphic scores are typically associated with a semi-improvised tradition of score reading. Seeking a greater amount of consistency and ensemble integrity for a graphic notation system, Thallus introduces a semi-structured framework, generating sheet music based on performer input on a per-performer basis.

Thallus was formed as part of the Ars Bioarctica Artist Residency in Northern Lapland, Finland. Working in a remote environment, I was afforded the opportunity to collaborate with Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, with a focus on the botanical elements of the arctic environment. Walking through the tundra beneath Saana, I was struck by the beauty and complexity of the communities of lichen beneath my feet. In many ways, it strikes me as a natural notation which we are now unable to read. It has structure, community, networks and it changes, both temporally and from location to location. For decades, scientists have used lichen as an environmental indicator - a ‘sensor’ for pollution, warming and cooling that doesn’t use batteries. I have set out to find what musical interpretation and performance can bring to a natural indictor such a lichen, and what may be uncovered about the Arctic environment in the process.

Over my stay at Kilpisjärvi, I formed an open dataset of lichen that captures various rock faces at different altitudes, biomes and areas of human activity. Thallus uses this dataset to generate scores that are then performed as a means of musically interpreting the Arctic environment.

Thallus was performed at the Fourth International Conference on Technologies for Music Notation and Representation (TENOR 2018), by Ensemble Supermusique, using Decibel Score Player.

Many thanks to Leena, Gareth, Elina, Piritta and Erich for being such welcoming hosts during my short time in the north of Finland.