John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Three years of air-quality readings in Beijing are mixed into this unsettling track.
The experimental musician took three years of air-quality readings from a U.S. State Department site in Beijing (current status: "Unhealthy"), and mixed them with samples from the Nine Inch Nails song "32 Ghosts IV."
Why that particular track? "Industrial Music: is a genre of music that generally uses electronic technology (such as synthesizers and white noise ) in a harsh and abrasive manner," Foo explains. "I believed this would be the most appropriate types of sounds to sample from since much of China's pollution is driven by its recent industrial and technological boom."
The result is an unsettling but magnetizing score, with a pounding bass beat invoking the dread of the Jaws theme. When the music starts blipping like crazy, that's when you know you've entered a period when Beijing was awash in noxious fine-particulate matter. Here's Foo with more:
The song becomes "polluted" after many consecutive days of unhealthy readings rather than being affected by any single daily reading. Conversely, the song will "clear up" after many consecutive days of good or moderate readings. I decided to create the song in this way because it was more [analogous] to the impact of pollution on a Beijing resident's health over a longer period of time.
This is an animated version of the asthmatic anthem. Look for the pollution to peak in the winter, usually around January: