December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Amy Lynn Straub

Classically trained cellist April Faith-Slaker is a composer and multi-instrumentalist. In fact, one could simply call her multi. She has played locally and internationally with various orchestras, performance groups, and rock bands. Andy Miles of Chicago music and art shop Transistor recently asked her to contribute a composition to their webcast. She’s worked with Omaha’s contemporary performance group Aetherplough since 2010, and by day, she is a lawyer and a data scientist who analyzes research to inform social policy in the legal world.

Rather than compartmentalize these seemingly disparate aspects of her personality, Faith-Slaker found a way to bring all of herself to bear on a challenging project: translating social data into music.

“I’d seen someone doing it with weather data,” Faith-Slaker says. “That planted the seed.”

The concept of making music from data is not new. Former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy once worked with IBM to translate tennis data into music. But that was tennis.

With her demonstrable passion for the human side of data—she has advanced degrees in law, research methods, and social policy—Faith-Slaker set her sights higher than racquet sports.

“I started poking around the Internet and couldn’t find anyone that had done it with social data, specifically,” she says. “I was curious about what that process would look like.”

The result of her data music composition is by turns ominous and dissonant, lyrical and shimmering—giving aesthetic weight to statistical trends in child immigration, gun violence in Nebraska, access to justice, gender inequality, and housing segregation.

She didn’t need help from IBM either. She calculated the shape of the music based on her own insights. For instance, according to slides from a presentation she gave at the annual experimental performance festival Omaha Under the Radar, Faith-Slaker calculated pitch and rhythm using 2013-2014 Nebraska gun violence victims’ life expectancies, ages, genders, and date of death. It was a haunting way to visualize a horrific issue.

“Right now I’m looking for the next step with the data music project,” Faith-Slaker says. “Some people feel I should present this information back to either the community I got the data from, or to people who can actually do something with it in terms of policy. I’m seeing if there’s any way to push it out in a more meaningful way.”

The music and presentation slides from the data music project can be experienced at vimeo.com/ datacompositions.

Faith-Slaker’s “non-data” solo music is more rhythmic than algorithmic. For these compositions, she involves an electric cello and a looper pedal, a type of electronic effects box that lets her build a polyphonic composition from a single instrument. She records a snippet of music, loops it in the background, and layers more sounds and passages or subtracts them, all while accompanying herself in real time like someone unbound by the laws of the universe.

The resulting compositions are stunning, exuberant, lyrical, and hypnotically recursive.

Listen to her via her Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/aprilfs

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