Hearing the
River's Flows

This "song of the Ottawa" uses the hydrometric data collected at the
foot of Rideau locks from 1880-1977 to tune into the river's hydrologic cycle.

Above: Detail from records of the tailwater elevations measured at a sawmill of J.R. Booth’s on the banks of the Ottawa River. These records are part of the museum’s Domtar/E.B. Eddy/J.R. Booth Collection (CSTM Archives/Archives MSTC DEB-LDG-53).

The song

While daily measurements are available for much of this period, I chose to use monthly mean data to limit the size of my dataset, and to foreground the river’s seasonal shifts. On nineteenth century fire insurance maps of Ottawa, Hull, and the river’s islands at Chaudière, there are small reminders that the borders and boundaries between water and land are in flux. These maps depict the river’s “high water” and “low water” levels, but do not offer much else about the impact its changing flows have on city life.

Hearing the River's Flows is intended to capture the large-scale changes to the riverscape over a period of 98 years. The river's seasonal shifts become the main, repetitive structure of the song. It is algorithmically generated, meaning that while the author of the code can determine the inputs and parameters of the outcome, the computer is the actual composer. I used “MIDITime,” a library for Python developed by Reveal News for a radio story about earthquake frequency in Oklahoma, to translate the numerical data into “Musical Instrument Digital Interface."

Take a look at the code used to create this song here, and feel free to download and re-mix it for your own purposes!