Thunderstruck: Rock Out With Mother Nature’s Evil Side
Windchimes aren’t the only musical instruments powered by the weather. The genre-defying musician and one-man band known only as Quintron has created a giant analog synthesizer controlled completely by the weather.
Called the Weather Warlock, it works when sensors detect changes in sunlight, wind, rain, and temperature. Copper wires then carry that information via a water-proof casing to the synth that sits, for now, in the living room of Quintron’s home in New Orleans’ 9th Ward.
“The weather has so many elements that are constantly fluctuating all day, every day. My goal was to translate those into something we could actually hear—not just digital readouts on a weather station but actual sound changes,” Quintron said.
So what exactly does Mother Nature’s soundtrack sound like? “If this were an orchestra, rain and wind would be the percussive elements and temperature provides the bass. Sunrise and Sunset are the soloists,” Quintron said.
For the curious who want to experience it for themselves —and who wouldn’t, really?—outputs from the Weather Warlock are streamed live, 24 hours a day on Weather for the Blind. Special audio events take place at dusk and dawn. The project’s name refers to circadian rhythm disorders often experienced by blind people brought about by being isolated from environmental time cues, such as sunrise and sunset. Of the 100,000 people in the United States who are completely blind, about 70 percent are unable to perceive enough light to establish a normal night sleep patterns.
The Weather Warlock is the latest addition to Quintron’s cache of self-made electronic instruments. Among them are the Spit Machine, a hand organ that uses saliva as a tuning conduit, and the Drum Buddy, a light-oscillated drum machine.
Quintron had been tinkering with the concept of a weather-controlled machine for years, but he began focusing on the project in 2011, when a health crisis forced him to spend time at home, instead of touring. The project began when he mounted the first set of sensors to the roof of his home and built the first prototype of the base station on the front porch. The earliest incarnation, he says, “literally sounded like the voices of hell.”
“It was just white noise with these kind of burbling scary backwards voice noises going on,” he said. “Then about two or three months into it I stumbled on the idea that this thing had to be pleasant to listen to because I was wanting it to be on all the time.”
Once he settled on turning it to a major E chord, the instrument had a surprisingly meditative effect. “I instantly calmed down and was better able to focus on the building when I had these nice sounds going, too,” he said.
But working out its kinks was more than an exercise in tuning. It turns out all weather is not the same when it comes to the analog approximation of its sound. Translating rain at its various levels of intensity, Quintron says, was especially challenging.
“The obvious idea would be to just build some weather-proof contact microphones and pick up the actual rain as it hits a sheet of metal or something,” he said. But the result, he said, “sounded like an angle grinder, not the pitter-patter of God's springtime water can.”
Instead of capturing the sounds of rain via microphone, Quintron build electronic audio circuits to approximate those sounds. The circuits are based on those sounds you might hear on old organ drum—electronic bongos, for example, come to mind. He then used the semi-conductivity of rain to turn LED lights on and off. Light sensors, triggered by the LEDs, kicked in to turn the sounds on and off.
With the third and most recent prototype now finished after completing a residency earlier this year at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Quintron took the synth on the road as part of a touring band—also called the Weather Warlock—with Gary Wrong of Wizzard Sleeve and Aaron Hill of EyeHateGod.
“We took a very heavy guitar-bashing approach. I wanted it to be totally in tune with what the weather was doing but kind of represent the more evil side of Mother Nature,” he said.
Eventually, Quintron hopes to build more base stations around the world so that listeners can experience musical interpretations of a diversity of climates. In the meantime, Quintron is forever tweaking the Weather Warlock.
“I’m messing with it all day long. Tune in anytime and chances are you’ll hear me jamming,” he said.
Rain or shine.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.