Breathe, River (2019)

4-channel sound installation presented inside the Byrd Park Pump House, Richmond, VA

"Breathe, River" is a sound installation based on water quality data from the James River, with speakers placed throughout the interior of the Pump House. The work is informed by conversations with aquatic ecologist Dr. Paul Bukaveckas of VCU Rice Rivers Center and reveals the drastic fluctuations of dissolved oxygen levels in the river due to algae blooms. These chronic summer-long blooms, caused by excess nutrients from wastewater runoff upstream, threaten the health of the river, harm wildlife and present potential hazards to human health.

The recorded piece features a remarkable performance on tenor saxophone by Jason Scott, University of Richmond instructor and Richmond native. Bouchard used data sonification software to determine the saxophone melody, which represents dissolved oxygen levels of the James River in 2-hr increments throughout the entire year of 2017. The 30-minute piece begins and ends with little variance in melody as oxygen saturation hovers around 100%. As the river warms in the summer months and algae begins to grow, photosynthesis activity increases, causing oxygen levels to rise during the day and fall at night. The fluctuations peak in late summer, when algae blooms reach their maximum and then die off, depleting the river of its oxygen. In 2017, dissolved oxygen dropped to a low of 3.9 mg/l, a level stressful to fish. The piano accompaniment was recorded by the artist and is based loosely on the river’s pH levels, which also rise and fall on a daily basis.

This project was made possible thanks to a grant from CultureWorks Richmond, the generosity of Friends of Pump House and the support of Sound Arts Richmond.