Sam Nester uses Technology to Make Music in Hawai'i Volcanos National Park

In addition to his role as St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s Brass Band Director, faculty member Sam Nester has a multi-faceted career as a musician in his own right. As a trumpeter, he has performed for Lincoln Center, the Beijing Modern Music Festival, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the Mark Morris Dance Group, among others. 

This past summer, his music took him on a new adventure: to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, where he was the artist-in-residence in a position made possible by the National Parks Art Foundation, which offers month-long fellowships to select artists. 

Established in 1916, the park on Hawaii’s “Big Island” is home to numerous volcanoes, including two of the world’s most active, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. 

Mr. Nester was there to capture the music of all of that seismic activity that is shaping and re-shaping the land. Using seismic data from the United States Geological Survey, he cataloged the earthquakes that occurred beneath the park—more than 750 during his visit—and devised a system to convert parameters such as magnitude, depth, and time of quake to musical elements. The resulting score provided a way of experiencing, through sound, the activity that is changing the shape, position, and size of Hawaii—and the very face of the Earth itself. 

“Data sets rarely move an audience, but the interpretation or representation of critical information through artistic forms is ripe for broader engagement,” says Mr. Nester. “A piece of music fully informed by earthquake data may not be everyone’s Friday night listening, and it is unlikely to inspire a new generation of musicological geologists. However, offering art grounded in a natural phenomenon may allow for a fresh perspective and deepening of our relationship to the rhythms of the natural world.”

In this way, artists can play a vital role in conservation and messaging. Mr. Nester has seen first-hand that interdisciplinary collaboration can provide new perspectives and approaches to sharing issues of sustainability and climate change more widely and that artistic work can contribute to scientific inquiry. He believes that collaborating with scientists can allow for new insights into research and the presentation of technical material. 

“Perhaps now more than ever, our wild places need artists. We need artists to know them, to feel connected to them, and to share their experiences as widely as possible,” Mr. Nester says. “Art inspires. It has the power to create change in a viewer, reader, or listener and to reach vast audiences. So let the artists of today inspire the protection of an even greater number of our natural wonders, to be loved, shared, and known by future generations.”