Weather Report in F Major: New Orleans Musician Turns Weather Data Into Sound
Weather Warlock is the invention of New Orleans musician David Rolston, aka Quintron.
New Orleans is famous for its music — and infamous for its weather. And at a house on St. Claude Avenue, tucked between the musicians’ haven of Faubourg Marigny and the hurricane-ravaged 9th Ward, a novel device is using the weather to make music.
Mounted on a post just off the front porch is a cluster of instruments that read temperature, ultraviolet light, wind speed, and precipitation. The results are fed to an analog synthesizer and streamed online, giving listeners a real-time weather report in F major.
“The randomness of it is kind of soothing,” said the device’s inventor, musician, and tinkerer David Rolston, better known by his stage name Quintron. “It’s like the randomness of staring at a fire, which is constantly changing, but is almost the same.”
But the device, known as the Weather Warlock, also has a side function that becomes apparent twice a day: It can help blind people orient themselves to day and night. Dawn brings an increasingly insistent pulse over the drone as UV rays start to reach over the horizon. Nightfall triggers a siren-like tone that gradually descends through the scale over about half an hour.
The feature is aimed at helping to ease a common problem among the sight-impaired, one that throws off their body’s basic sleep-wake cycles.
Quintron developed the device during a layoff caused by his own health scare — a late-stage lymphoma diagnosis that appeared to be a “death sentence,” but that he’s beaten back with chemotherapy. Between rounds of chemo, “I had a lot of free time,” he said. “I’d always had this project in the back of my mind, and I had some time, so I started building it.”
He refined the device over a two-year period that included a 2014 residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Florida. The synthesizer’s drone not only relaxed him personally, but a blind friend shared his own struggles with the circadian rhythm disorder known as non-24 sleep-wake disorder.
“And then it slowly kind of unveiled itself to me that this could be possibly helpful in accompaniment with all the other things that are helpful, to people who are sight-impaired — or at least an interesting listen,” he said.
Light controls the body’s production of hormones like cortisol and melatonin, which keep your body’s sleep-wake cycles in rhythm. Anyone who’s worked a graveyard shift or flown across oceans can tell you how breaking that rhythm can throw off your sleep and leave you feeling foggy.
But when your eyes don’t transmit light to the brain, the rhythm can be disrupted completely, affecting not only sleep but metabolism and digestion.
“Before you wake up, your bodily system is already beginning to charge up your system to make you go for the day,” Schwab said. “Your blood sugar begins to rise before you awaken. Your cortisol begins to rise before you awaken. You have no conscious part of it.”
The nerves that carry those signals are different than the rod-and-cone assemblies in the eye that help your brain turn light into images, and they have evolutionary roots in some of the simplest animal species. But even today, their role isn’t fully understood, said Ivan Schwab, who teaches ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis.
Schwab sounds a dubious note about the benefits of the Weather Warlock. Circadian rhythm disorders are usually treated by a psychiatrist or with drugs prescribed by an expert in sleep disorders. However, it’s possible people could use it to condition their bodies.
“If you do this enough times, the body will get the hint that this is going to be a time to wake up, and this is going to be the time to go to sleep, and these sounds coordinate with that,” Schwab said. “The brain is quite plastic, even at older age groups, the brain can relearn things and rewire. But I’d be very skeptical until I saw some evidence.”
Quintron said his device is “not curative, but helpful,” and stresses that he’s not making any medical claims for the Weather Warlock.
“I leave the cures and the actual research to people who are more equipped to do it,” he said. “I see it more like a service that’s constantly there and constantly changing, but reliably sort of the same.”
The Weather Warlock’s temperature sensors tweak the bass and treble. A drop of moisture falling onto two brass probes closes a circuit that produces a blip in the sound. Spinning anemometers turn the wind into rising or falling tones. As a storm comes in, “It sounds really choppy and fast,” Quintron said. But most of the time, it produces a quiet drone, which is streamed online and broadcast from a speaker on the porch.
It’s not his first instrument: He’s been building instruments since he in high school, an extension of his early interest in electrical gadgets. He’s also the inventor of an optically controlled percussion synthesizer, the Drum Buddy, which uses a drum spinning around a light source to trigger the sounds.
The original Weather Warlock is controlled by an old radio control board salvaged from Tulane University’s student station. In his basement workshop, Quintron replaced the guts of the board with controls wired to the instruments outside.
It’s still around, and is about to go on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. But the latest iteration is a sleek, backlit greenish box attached to a keyboard that helps Quintron manipulate the sound for performances.
He occasionally takes the device on tour with his band, Quintron and Miss Pussycat, which pairs his “swamp tech” electronica with his wife’s puppet shows. The Weather Warlock’s sounds also form the basis of a side act, also called Weather Warlock, in which Quintron and his collaborators play off the synthesizer’s tones: He recently changed the key from E to F to harmonize with an oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument similar to a lute.
“It’s gotten more bizarre, outside-the-world of rock’n’roll attention than anything else I’ve ever done,” he said.