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Data-Driven Band 'CSV Soundsystem' Makes Music From Spreadsheets

By Meredith Hoffman | April 29, 2013 6:49am

GREENPOINT — Late one recent night in an apartment near McCarren Park, Tom Levine and his bandmates finished their latest track after returning from a house party nearby.

The all-male group kept its downstairs neighbor awake with their "weird jingle" — but singers and bassists were nowhere in sight.

Instead, there were spreadsheets.

"People have been making music quite a long time. They’ve used drums and guitars, and people on the street will use buckets," said Levine, 23. "And today we have lots of data because computers make it easy to. So we happen to be using data as the instrument."

Levine's group CSV Soundsystem — a riff on the renowned band LCD Soundsystem, with CSV standing for the Comma Separated Value computer file format for tables — derives numbers from information to determine notes in their electronic songs, like in their first music video tracking the U.S. government's finances since 2005.

"The chords are based on the daily balance of the treasury, so if it changes quickly you hear a flourish," explained Levine, noting that two melodies ran throughout the tune. "One of the [melodies] is the debt ceiling, so as it goes up the pitch goes up. The other is the federal interest rate, so as it goes up the note gets higher pitched."

The song (called "FMS Symphony," for the Department of the Treasury's Financial Management Service) may be the next logical step in music to Levine, but it was the result of a group whose members are all well-schooled in data science and technology.

"We started the song at Columbia and Stanford's Bicoastal Datafest," said Levine of their project, which won the prestigious contest examining money's impacts on politics. "Most of the guys in the group went to Columbia for school...If you want to say it simply, we're all data scientists."

Members of the "band" include Brian Abelson, an open news fellow with The New York Times; Jake Bialer, an innovations editor with Huffington Post; Burton DeWilde, a data analyst at Harmony Institute; Michael Keller, a senior data reporter with Newsweek and The Daily Beast; and Cezary Podkul, a reporter for Reuters.

Levine is a Cornell University graduate who calls himself a "data superhero" and works for a handful of different companies and nonprofits. He said the crew — which unites weekly for Wednesday night "jam sessions" where they hack together data at Think Coffee in Manhattan — is just getting started.

"We talk about using more senses to understand data, since usually you just use sight," he explained. "Another way would be to use food, which could activate all five senses."

Still, music is a natural fit to illustrate statistics and trends, he added, since both data and melodies rely on consistency with unexpected twists.

"Data will have patterns, but once in a while there's a quirk," Levine said. "So it has a regularity that makes it cohesive as one song but the flourish makes it interesting. That's why data is our instrument."

And more than just a creative play on facts and figures, Levine said CSV Soundsystem means to shed light on issues in a poignant way.

"We're still talking about the financial crisis," Levine said of their song. "These are the issues one might sing about, and we’re just doing it through data."