FMS Symphony is a quirky sonification of the US treasury balance since the 2008 financial crisis. It was released in 2012 and I asked the creators, Thomas Levine and Brian Abelson, part of CSV Soundsystem, a few questions to know more about it.
The US Treasury is one of the biggest debtors in the world and the Congress has set a debt ceiling, meaning that if the debt reaches that number, the Treasury has to take extraordinary measures to honour existing commitments. If those measures are exhausted, the USA legally cannot borrow any more money and thus defaults on is debt. The USA has reached the debt ceiling several times but always has managed to avoid outright default.
Three datasets were used:
- The “derivatives of the account balance”; which is the net change based on the daily deposits and withdrawals.
- The federal interest rate
- the distance between the accumulated debt and the legal debt ceiling
These data were sourced from the Treasury through the self-developed treasury.io API.
The piece is in a 4/4 beat and each beat represents one work day. Played at 280 BPM, the piece lasts 6 minutes 41 seconds.
There are several layers, each representing a different dataset.
- The two main melodies (both in C-major) are panned to the left and the right. On the left side, you hear a melody representing the distance to the debt ceiling: the closer to the debt ceiling, the higher the pitch.At the right side, the melody represents the interest rate
- The federal interest rate is mapped to a scale in C major. Tomas Levine writes that they metaphorically assigned a number to each of the white keys on a piano and rounded all of the interest rate values to a key.
- Flourishes occur when, in a two-month rolling window, the movements are beyond the 2.5 standard deviations from the mean. A C4-major chord represents an upward movement, while a downward arpeggio represents a negative deviation.
- The daily movement (the derivative of the account balance) are mapped to chords: a positive net change triggers a major chord, a negative net change triggers a minor chord.
Finally, A drum ostinato accompanies the whole piece.
The timeline progression is visualised on a graph where a Chernoff face functions as the playhead. The face mutates according to 15 principal components of 52 different categories of daily receipts.
Chernoff faces, invented in 1973 by Herman Chernoff are used to display multivariate data through human faces. Chernoff believed that humans can recognise small changes in the face easily
There is an alternate version, using different instruments as well as a slightly different visualisation.
Obsolence and code
Unfortunately, the website domain is up for sale so you can not view the piece anymore on the dedicated website. However, it is still available to watch on Youtube and you can download the code on Github.
About the artist and related work
Thomas Levine is an artist working in different fields. His work frequently uses (open) data as a source material. He has done a few other sonification works, which you can check out on his website. He also develops software for open data research and journalism.
Brian Abelson is a data scientist who applies statistics and social science to journalism and the measurement of media impact. He was a 2013 Mozilla-Knight OpenNews Fellow at The New York Times and is an experienced data scientist. Brian Abelson is a researcher at the Tow Center for digital journalism.
CSV Soundsystem is an informal group that works on projects around journalism and computer programming. They meet regularly to talk about projects and ways of collaboration.