Only overhead the sweet nightingale
Ever sang more sweet as the day might fail,
And snatches of its Elysian chant
Were mixed with the dreams of the Sensitive Plant
Percy Shelley, The Sensitive Plant, 1820
ROOT: Sounds from the Invisible Plant
Plants are the most abundant life form visible to us. Despite their ubiquitous presence, most of the times we still fail to notice them. The botanists James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler call it “plant blindness, an extremely prevalent condition characterized by the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s immediate environment. Mathew Hall, author of Plants as Persons, argues that our neglect towards plant life is partly influenced by the drive in Western thought towards separation, exclusion, and hierarchy. Our bias towards animals, or zoochauvinism–in particular toward large mammals with forward facing eyes–has been shown to have negative implications on funding towards plant conservation. Plants are as threatened as mammals according to Kew’s global assessment of the status of plant life known to science. Curriculum reforms to increase plant representation and engaging students in active learning and contact with local flora are some of the suggested measures to counter our plant blindness.
Participatory art including plants might help dissipate plants’ invisibility. Some authors argue that meaningful experiences involving a multiplicity of senses can potentially engage emotional responses and concern towards plants life. In this article, I map out a brief history of the different musical and sound art practices that incorporate plants and discuss the ethics of plant life as a performative participant.
STEM: Music to grow your plants by
Flowers grow rhythmically.
Henry Turner Bailey, 1916
“Music for plants” is a small footnote in the history of recorded music. However, it perfectly mirrors many of the misconceptions and mainstream perceptions of plant life. By late 1950s, reports on the relationship between plants and music started to surface in popular culture and making the headlines of newspapers for the next decades: Flute Music ‘charms’ plants into growing bigger, better; Silly-looking plants that listen and really care, Drooping Plants Revived by Soothing East Indian Music. These experiments were later compiled and disseminated by the bestselling book The Secret Lives of Plants (1973) that furthered ideas of sentient plants that feel emotions and respond to human thought (what Cleve Backster called primary perception).
The book reinforced the music-plant experiments of Dorothy Retallack, that famously claimed that plants exposed to classical and sitar music thrived in comparison to plants exposed to Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix’s acid rock. The scientific shortcomings of these experiments are well known. Daniel Chamovitz, author of What a Plant Knows, points out that Retallack’s experiments mainly provide a window into the cultural-political climate of the 1960s through the lens of a religious social conservative who believed that rock music was correlated with antisocial behavior among teenagers. The alleged beneficial plant response to classical music was in many occasions used as an ideological device against youth culture.
Musicians and record companies seized to entertain this new potted audience. Records to aid plant growth could be found in many florist stores in the US. Their labels promised happy, healthy and fast growing plants with the help of classical and chamber music standards, electronic tunes, sine waves and spoken word. For instance, Molly Roth’s record Plant Talk (1976) gaudily speaks to several indoor plants (English Ivy, Fern, Philodendron…) while giving advice on plant care.
Molly Roth & Jim Bricker, Plant Talk/Sound Advice, 1976:
Dr. George Milstein’s record Music to Grow Plants (1970) uses high pitched tones under a Mantovani-esque orchestration to help improve the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the plants’ leaves. “The music is sugar coating for the vibrations” explains Milstein, “sound vibrations induce the stomata to remain open wider for longer periods, thus plants take in more nourishment and grow faster and sturdier.”
Dr. George Milstein, Music to Grow Plants, 1970:
Music to Grow Plants manifested the human perception of plants as passive and isolated recluses of indoor places. Some of these artists’ efforts came from the genuine struggle to grow plants in big metropolis. However, the veiled nature of plants became attached to personal narratives, tastes and social values. Plants were visible insofar as a canvas to anthropomorphic projections.
LEAF: Green Materialities and the Electrical Plant
Oats… the witching soul of music.
Kate Greenaway, The Language of Flowers, 1884
The sounding materiality of plants was appropriated by avant-garde practices interested in amplifying the noises of everyday life. The sounds produced by acts of physical contact with plants became a new ground for musical composition. Contact microphones attached to plants’ surfaces amplified their inaudible sonic proprieties. Two of John Cage’s percussion compositions Child of Tree (1975) and Branches (1976) call for amplified plant materials like cacti and rattles from a Poinciana tree. Plants provided the quality of chance and indeterminacy as they gradually deteriorate during the performance. The amplified cactus became an icon of indeterminacy music and keeps being plucked by many artists today like Jeph Jerman, So Percussion, Mark Andre, Adrienne Adar or Lindsey French. The Portuguese sound artist João Ricardo creates full soundscapes by conducting an orchestra of over twenty cacti (Cactus Workestra) performed by young students that follow his gestural directions on how to rhythmically pluck the cacti needles.
Creating music through touch and corporal proximity with plant life revitalizes human-plant relationships generating intimacy and knowledge. John Ryan poses the importance of “reaching out towards plants” to create experiences of embodied appreciation and connectivity. A close connection between body, plants and music can be found in leaf music (folded leaf whistle, gumleaf music) practiced by Australian Aboriginal societies who developed an acute ability to select and differentiate the sonic qualities of plant matter. The scholar Robin Ryan describes how leaf music is an intimate and vital part of Aboriginal societies to reflect upon the nonhuman world, as well as, a vehicle of attachment to local “music trees,” bushes, and plants. The Serbian film Unplugged (2013), directed by Mladen Kovacevic, follows two leaf players from rural eastern Serbia and an instrument builder trying to learn the art of leaf music. The simplicity of the leaf instrument deceives the extent of knowledge and practice necessary to master it.
Time and intimacy with plant matter are important components of leaf music. Artists like Annea Lockwood (Piano Transplants) and Ross Bolleter (Ruined Pianos) reversed the equation of the effects of music on plant growth and explored the effects of plant growth on musical instruments by abandoning pianos in outdoor fields and gardens. These works disregard human-time and tune in to plant-time. There’s a special acknowledgement of plant life in art works that tap into plants’ otherness.In many music performances the role of the plant remains attached to an object-like position tied to the artist’s agenda. Musical practices using generative systems stemming from plants’ biological information attempt to take a step forward into the inner life of plants. Sensors attached to plants’ leaves detect bioelectrical potential changes originating from environmental variables like light, humidity, temperature and touch. These micro-electrical fluctuations are converted into MIDI signals that trigger notes and controls in synthesizers. The element of interactivity that these systems allow between public and plant via sound highlights in real time plant responses to sensorial stimuli. The Mexican artist Leslie Garcia sonically demonstrates the sensorial qualities of plants in her project Pulsu(m) Plantae (2012-13) and makes her software available for other artists to use. Similarly, the duo Scenocosme creates interactive gardens where plants act as sensors to human touch generating cascades of sound. Creative chains linking plants, technology, music and touch can also be found in site-specific installations by Mileece and Miya Masaoka.
Plant-based generative music was pioneered by the British architect and artist John Lifton in the early 70s. Lifton created Green Music, an installation for 6 plants in an environmental chamber connected to an analogue computer and fed to a synthesizer. In 1976, the producers of the film-adaptation of Secret Life of Plants brought John Lifton to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to collaborate with Richard Lowenberg, Tom Zahuanec, and Jim Wiseman. The group developed a several day media-performance with sonic translations of brain waves and muscle electrical potentials of 6 dancers mixed with plant-based generative music. The film features few sequences of this performance. However, we can get a better glimpse at Tom Zahuranec’s plant generative music in an interview by Charles Amirkhanian for a KPFA’s Radio Event. Particularly, we can hear audiences’ thoughts on plant life and how widespread were new age ideas of primary perception in plants.
Charles Amirkhanian & audience members react to Tom Zahuranec’s plant music, Radio Event No. 20, KPFA, 1972
These early experiments on generative music were a main influence on the artistic collective Data Garden, which has been releasing plant music and creating immersive audio environments controlled by plants since 2011. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Data Garden launched a biofeedback kit, the MIDI Sprout, that allows users to easily derive music from plants’ electrical changes. Joe Patitucci, founder of Data Garden, says that since the campaign they have produced 800 units and have 400 users on their forum experimenting with the technology. In parallel, Patitucci has developed an online stream called Plants.fm that continuously broadcasts music generated by a snake plant and/or a philodendron. Data Garden has also released an app that allows users to plug the MIDI Sprout to the phone and hear their plants triggering the sounds designed by the developers.
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, performance with MIDI Sprout, modular synthesizer and voice
These methods of generative composition are easing the way for users to creatively relate to plants. However, it’s vital that artists don’t reduce the diversity of plant life into a single aesthetic or into a “music of the spheres” representation. In this respect, the sound ecologist Michael Prime shatters the convention of assigning melodic sounds to plants by creating alien soundscapes generated from the electrical signals of hallucinogenic plants as heard in L-Fields and in One hour as a plant.
Beyond plants’ electrical responses, some artists are using alternative parameters to translate the life of plants into sound. For instance, Christine Ödlund collaborated with Ecological Chemistry Research Group in Stockholm to create an electro-acoustic composition accompanied by a score entitled Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle in which she transposes into tones the chemical signals released by a stinging nettle when attacked by a caterpillar and how the plant communicates with its nearby plant kin (the score can be seen in more detail here). The installation “Oxygen Flute,” created by Chris Chafe and Greg Niemeyer, reveals plant and human respiration through CO2 concertation readings in a chamber filled with bamboo. The fluctuation of CO2 inside the sealed chamber is translated into bamboo flute music fostering in the visitor a heightened perception of his own breath. The sonification of these hidden relationships between plant life and animal life call attention to larger concepts like the greenhouse effect or global warming in a very physical and emotional way. They make graspable what Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects – objects massively distributed in time and space that defy our perception and comprehension.
FOREST: Plant Bioacoustics and Acoustic Ecology
Sit by the trees – what kind of tree makes what kind of sound?
Pauline Oliveros, Country Meditations, 1988
One could argue that the only sound that is ecologically relevant is the sound of the plant itself. The realm of vibrations occurring on the plants’ surfaces that manifest the plant’s own agency and connectivity to its surroundings. In short, plant bioacoustics aims to study plants’ adaptive strategies that employ the use of sound. A common example is the process of buzz pollination in which plants only release pollen when vibrating at a specific frequency by pollinator bees. Plants can also respond selectively to the mechanical vibrations generated by the chewing of insect herbivores eliciting defensive chemical responses. A study by Monica Gagliano revealed that young roots of corn grow towards the source of continuous tones and respond optimally to frequencies of 200–300 Hz, which is within the frequency range of the clicking sounds the same roots emit themselves. Also, Gagliano and her team have recently shown that the roots of pea seedlings are able to locate water sources by sensing the vibrations generated by water moving. Gagliano has been one of the forefront voices advocating for the need of more research in plant bioacoustics to understand the ecological significance of sound in plants.
So far, it is not completely clear how plants use “sound detection,” and if sounds are used as signal or are merely by-products of their physiology. Nevertheless, is important to recognize them. These sounds have been the focus of some practices that articulate artistic and scientific points of view. Inspired by Gagliano’s studies, Sebastian Frisch created the installation Biophonic Garden that recontextualizes a lab setting where a group of corn seedlings are suspended in a water tank that grow towards a constant sine tone of 220 Hertz. A set of headphones allows one to tune into the roots’ acoustic environment amplified by two hydrophones.
Zach Poff’s project Pond Station invites us to eavesdrop on the sounds of underwater plants of a small freshwater pond in Upstate New York. During an artistic residency at Wave Farm, Poff built a floating platform that operates from dawn to evening using solar-charged batteries. The Pond Station uses hydrophones to amplify the sounds of underwater life and broadcasts them via online web stream. The underwater soundscape goes through cyclical changes according to seasons and time of day. In the mornings, Poff describes a photosynthetic chorus of bubbling as plants begin to produce oxygen. Recently, an invasion of duckweed covered the surface of the freshwater pond affecting its soundscape. I asked Zach Poff about the sonic consequences of this invasion:
Duckweed taught me a lesson about biophony as an indicator of biodiversity. For an entire year I struggled with rebuilding hydrophones and upgrading electronics, trying to get back the poly-rhythmic diversity that I heard during the first year of listening. Then I realized that the duckweed could reduce oxygen levels enough to cause fish kills, and block sunlight from reaching other aquatic plants.
Poff finds a parallel between the lack of density and variety in the underwater soundscape of the pond and Bernie Krause’s recordings made in California’s Lincoln Meadow before and after selective logging occurred:
From a distance the visual field was unchanged but the biophony was basically gone after the logging. The pond duckweed looks like a benign blanket of green, but all that’s left of the sound is the slow bubbling that I attribute to decaying organics on the pond bottom. It’s jarring.
FRUIT: Plant Ethics and Speculative Botany
There are many ways to love a vegetable.
M.F.K. Fisher, How to cook a wolf, 1942
The sonification and acoustic amplification of plant life evoke both a sense of connection and the realization of an ontological fracture. The translation and artistic representation of plant otherness into sound or music brings ups vital ethical considerations. Michael Marder, author of Plant-Thinking, argues that techniques applied to plants to derive meaningful information from a human standpoint occlude the meaning of the plants themselves. Once we engage with the electronic menagerie, the plant starts to disappear. Alternative ways of thinking with and of being with plants are called upon by Marder, specifically, artistic practices that vibrate with the self-expressions of vegetal life. In Grafts, the scientist Monica Gagliano states that it is inaccurate and unethical to answer the question “How do plants sound?” by transposing vegetal processes onto musical scales. The concern is the override of plants’ natural voices with familiar harmonic sounds, the same way time-lapse photography rips plants of its own temporally.
The work of the Slovenian bio-artist and researcher Špela Petrič delves into the frontiers of plant otherness and problematizes plant ethics. In 2015, Petrič performed Skotopoiesis, a durational piece in which the artist faced a germinating cress for 19 hours. The artist figure casted a shadow on the cress contributing to the etiolation (blanching, whitening) of the plants. Petrič wrote that the 19-hour period of active inactivity was her way of surrendering to the plant. I asked Špela Petrič’ about her perspective on ethics and performative plants:
I think the reason so many people started asking about the ethics of plant use stems on one hand from an increasing pool of knowledge that suggests plants are very much a complex, sentient beings, and on the other because we find ourselves in a spiraling loop of exploitation of all living beings, which provokes questions like: how did we get here and what can we possibly do to change our cosmology to be conducive of a livable world?
For Špela, plant ethics is not tied to artists’ treatment of plants but rather what kind of story the work tells to the audience. Špela confesses:
This part – the way an artwork is perceived – can be tricky and that is why I write about the trap of interfaces. I’ve struggled with it myself; in my best attempt to forefront the relationship between humans and plants I sometimes had to admit to being overpowered by the technology I used. Technology wants to tell its own narrative – the medium is the message – and we should be aware of that.
As to the risk of creating an anthropomorphic experience with plants, Špela sees an opportunity here:
I don’t think anthropomorphic experiences as a point of entry into the plant world should be a priori avoided, we might even say that anthropomorphism is one of our greatest tools for connecting with other species, but the task for artists is one of editing, of observing and of being mindful to what the artwork is saying.
Artistic practices with plants through music or sound can open the hidden territories of vibrant plant matter and an underground mesh of rhythms and patterns. The act of listening to plant life is an act of acknowledgment, a possibility for emotional identification and empathy rendering plants visible.
Featured image: “Music to Grow Plants By,” compilation by the author
Carlo Patrão is an independent radio artist based in New York City. zeppelinruc.wordpress.com
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Sounding Out! Podcast #58: The Meaning of Silence – Marcella Ernest
On December 28, 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation debuted a radio piece by famed pianist Glenn Gould, titled The Idea of North. Opaque yet spacious, this experiment would become the first in a trio of ambient documentaries to be produced over the next decade. Each episode explores the theme of solitude from a different geographical vantage, co-implicating form and content; for, as Gould demonstrates, telegraphy had long since complicated isolation as a lifestyle. But Gould’s obsessive pursuit of this ideal produces a multiperspectival portrait of settler consciousness, at the same time as it thematizes and intervenes in its medium as a technical means of colonial expansion.
With an ear to Europe, these radio pieces were assembled after the fashion of major postwar developments in tape music and collage. Stylistically, The Idea of North seems conspicuously stricken with an anxiety of influence befitting of an incipient nationalism; for it was clearly Gould’s intent to furnish his avant-garde composition a local character. As to whether Gould meant to modernize Canadian content, or to Canadianize modern form, his approach presumes ambiguity, to make strange a standard broadcast format. In Gould’s hourlong intervention, the soothing probity of the professional narrator’s voice is edged out by so much overlapping and uncertain talk. While certain formal precedents for this collaged approach de-emphasize semantics in favour of timbral and or ‘purely musical’ characteristics of source sounds, Gould’s regionalist reply preserves the referentiality of each sound as recorded; if only to sublate them altogether in a narrative tapestry.
Would it have been uncomfortable for general interest listeners—a postulate from which proceeds the mandate of national radio, but who actually identifies with this mean temperament?—to encounter The Idea of North in 1967? At the time of the original broadcast, it had been more than three years since Gould’s last public performance, during which hiatus he had come to champion recording as a frontier, commending radio to his purposes. But where these compositions are concerned, Gould’s method of assembly sought to bewilder certain basic expectations of the medium, and moreover, the idiom, of public radio. In North of Empire (2009), Jody Berland extols the eclectic texture of a favourite radio drama; yet even as she praises its narrator for imbuing each of his characters with individual depth, her attention, she tells us, remains fixed on a voice “replete with storytelling pleasures and the sonic signature of the CBC.” The voice of radio itself is most salient; a guarantor of sense and place.
THE UNSOLITARY SETTLER
Gould’s Solitude Trilogy evokes three differently isolated places; the Northern territories, a Newfoundland fishing village, and a Mennonite community on the prairies. The first-person accounts of each terrain that Gould collects are often contradictory, and left alone; for any commentary would thwart the sought-after intimacy of the vignette. Each is a sample—yet none an apt synecdoche—of a nebulous “Canadian” identity. For this reason, Mark Kingwell suggests in his biography of Gould (2009) that Gould’s evocation of the fugue is a red herring, for his radio works defy the expectation of resolution that defines the form. As Kingwell notes, Gould himself uses a critical alter-ego to offer that “the real counterpoint is ideological, between the exercise of individual freedom and the ‘tremendously tyrannical force’” of the social, which one must overcome in order to gain from solitude. (131)
The Idea of North enacts a tussle with a landscape too variously vast to be interiorized as home. This fact appears an obstacle to any attempt to forge or describe a monolithic Canadian identity; so it is encouraging that Kingwell finds in Gould’s radio work a not-so-covert theme of hospitality, an openness to the “novelty of the unknown person” thrust upon one in an unknown clime. Even so, the North, cast as a contiguous and unfathomable neighbour-threshold, exists for the southerner Gould “to dream about, to spin tall tales about, and in the end, avoid.” In this regard, a reactive refusal of hospitality is geographized so as to obscure the political stakes.
To rethink Canadian identity on the model of hospitality is to name an obvious standard by which to flunk the extant state. Following the work of Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos in Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier (2014), one might suggest that hospitality requires a frank response to the question “where do you come from?” Any such self-accounting is specifically repressed in the conscience of the settler, and the romantic conception of North America as a vast wilderness, untrammelled and unpeopled prior to European influence, is an outcome and requirement of this repression. It is possible, and moreover desirable, to think the contrapuntal weft of voices comprising Gould’s radio play as a practice of hospitality; but first one must acknowledge the degree to which, after the means of its realization, this open narrative remains a one-sided overture.
According to Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book (1989), what operates behind the radio in its appeal to “a tremendous national ear” is an obscure sense of the absolute priority of the other to oneself. (21) As seen above, a latent dialogue haunts every monovocal broadcast. However, one should complicate the too-readily metaphysicalized trope of the other with reference to the specific preoccupancy of a specific space by specific people, rather than fetishize otherness as a philosophico-poetic model for the production of pleasurable moral quandaries. Gould’s radio play would suggest as much, if negatively.
COMPOSING THE NATION-STATE
The fascinating effect of radio, R. Murray Schafer observes in The Soundscape (1994), has to do with the manner in which “broadcasting is separated into independent information channels so that the confusion of simultaneity, so often present in the soundscape at large, is absent.” (234) This facilitates the “deliberate attempt to regulate the flow of information according to human responses and information-processing capabilities.” (ibid) In short, radio functions as a half-conversation, an analysis turned in on itself, facilitating fanaticism and transference. Its domineering guise is the voice on which Berland fixates above, a sonic signature eliding content.
Gould bewilders this unitary vision, insisting upon crowded conditions, interruption and subjective chafe. In this regard, his programme is not only contrapuntal, as argued by Kingwell, but enacts a spatial intervention directly analogous to those undertaken in modern music. Schafer explains that the radio technician must account for perspective. The technician, he writes, conceives of the sound-scene in three main parts—the Immediate, the Support, and the Background—the interaction of which permits the listener to hierarchicalize and excerpt information. “The three-stage plan of the radio technician corresponds precisely to the classical layout of the orchestral score with soloist, concertino group and tutti accompaniment.” (234) Gould, after the fashion of his maverick performances, which involved a kind of escalating competition between the orchestra and the soloist, revels in conditions of uncertainty as to which features of the soundscape are ground and which are figure. At crowded moments, the determination of semantic signal and ambient support, is at the listener’s discretion.
“I was fascinated by the country as such,” The Idea of North begins; and this abstraction collapses back into the desire that it originates, for the speaker’s geographical cathexis manifests a country from above, a mottled sublime: “I felt that I was almost part of that country, part of that peaceful surrounding, and I wished that it would never end.” The “almost” of this encounter is Gould’s theme. One speaker contradicts himself in tracing the evasiveness of an imaginary terrain: “I can’t conceive of anyone being in close touch with the North, whether he lived there all the time or simply traveled it month after month, year after year. I can’t conceive of such a person being really untouched by the North for the rest of his life.” By this conflicted account, one can neither touch, nor remain untouched by, this terrain. That the idea of the North will never coincide with any terrain seems logically apparent; for the object under discussion is designated by a cardinal direction, an expression of spatial relation. One must be south of North to perceive it as such: the idea would be necessarily southern.
Gould frequently qualified his vantage over the course of his life: his composition was ineluctably nostalgic, shaped by southern biases, and so on. This modesty is itself a token of mandatory modernity, mediated by professional politesse. But the work largely concerns the composer’s own difficulty before intransigent material. “It’s not da gold, it’s de finding da gold,” one speaker quotes in order to affirm his own designs upon the landscape, and the phatic article before the questing verb suggests a more salient problem of definition: “I think the North is process,” the ruminant continues, without specifying the (innocent or sordid) processes in which one’s fantasy may be enrolled. “North is multiple, shifting, elastic,” Sherrill Grace writes in her book, Canada and the Idea of North (2007), suggesting that Canadians can change their ideas of this destination, in spite, or because, of their unseemly and persistent attachment to myriad partial representations. (17)
In 1967, however, Gould’s panel reproduces a paternalistic depiction of the territories and their denizens. “Considering a place romantic means that one doesn’t know too much about it,” our first speaker opines, professing helplessness before communities she had intended to rescue. At this telling point in the collaged “discussion,” which evades a certain burden of representation by evacuating the narrative center, a pointed racism crests, albeit in a version intended to ambiguate pernicious stereotypes by distributing them across so many unreliable voices. But the denominator of this chorus is all too Canadian. However multiple, the voices that were selected to depict a democratic and multi-perspectival clamor did not have the least moral difficulty ruling upon the communities that they encountered in pursuit of their own obscure desires.
Grace titles the penultimate section of her book “The North Writes Back,” attempting a theory of Northern discourse to broadly refute colonial description. The voices presented here run counter to the documentary attempts of Glenn Gould, Pierre Berton, and so many others outlined in the first chapter, “Representing North.” Inuit artist Alootook Ipellie furnishes an epigram: “Let us put, without hesitation, a voice in the mouth of our silent mind.” (227) This rebukes the repeat characterization of (the idea of) North as a state of silence, vacancy, or isolation; and the secondhand zen of the willfully itinerant settler, determined to meditate unto epiphany upon any unassimilable strangeness. The silencing conditions to which Ipellie addresses himself may well be the din of interlopers and their presumptions, rather than the manifold soundscape of their common destination. To place voice in the mouth of mind is to reply to silencing conditions: the operative distinction between voice and mouth evokes a talk-back capacity implicit in receipt, if unrealized.
Artist and DJ Geronimo Inutiq’s 2015 work, ARCTICNOISE, commissioned by curators Britt Gallpen and Yasmin Nurming-Por, responds directly to Gould’s radio play. A multilingual, multimedia portrait of the sovereign voices of an irreducible North, Inutiq’s installation extends the discursive counterpoint of Gould’s composition, spanning platforms as well as perspectives. As Sydney Hart remarks in his essay, Reading Contrapuntally (2016), Inutiq’s formal extrapolation of Gould’s structure resonates with Edward Said’s musical thoughts on postcolonial literature and its plurality of voices. Contrapuntal reading entails a “simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts.” (62)
In Inutiq’s installation, multiple video projections appear at cross-rhythms to each other, abstract digital art contrasting documentary interviews and archival footage. This juxtaposition aptly demonstrates the uneven contours of international development, mapped over the immersive course of Inutiq’s multipanoramic presentation. The context is combined and contradictory: resource extractive projects impelling settlers North, technological and military expansion into contested space during the Cold War, and a gallery-backed effort to create and claim Inuit artistic production, ready to market, as a national treasure, all play a part. These angles on the North are strategic abstractions, too; but to map them in simultaneity allows for a concerted, and concrete, critique.
Grace’s attempt to consolidate a “Northern” reply to a southern settler’s imaginary stalls upon qualification, as her ungrounded anthropology finds an innocuous “topographical and meteorological diversity” recapitulated at the highly localized level of attendant practice. By comparison, Inutiq’s ARCTICNOISE foregrounds interference in its very name. To call the multidiscursive clamour of the landscape ‘noise,’ an antecedent backing of any strong signal, is a totalizing gesture in the negative; at least where the transmissibility of identity to the state is concerned. In As We Have Always Done (2017), Nishinaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson cites nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) and Dene Suline scholar and artist Jarrett Martineau, describing Indigenous artistic practice as “noise to colonialism’s signal.” (198) This work, Simpson says, operates at an “elegant level of protection and disruption,” declining any susceptibility to a settler’s interception or interpretation, such as I cannot render here.
This complicates the philosophical trope of counterpoint, which requires the horizontal elaboration of two or more mutually dependent themes, as well as their vertical separation in space for clarity. Settler colonialism and capitalism alike oversee any number of encroachments, such that this meaningful categorical distinction lapses into convolution. If Gould’s ideal is a melodically assured phraseology, each soloist empowered to give a self-account, Inutiq’s challenge restores a prerequisite space to the arrangement of voices. The additive model of liberal civics—the progressivist notion that we only need for more diversity of talk-for-trade—swaps the necessity of a collaborative space for more and greater time, in which span all will be forgiven. To visually recompose Gould’s ad hoc townhall, with greater geographical and cultural specificity, is a powerful reminder that the purposes of any settler-artist’s pilgrimage may coincide with a place of their choosing, but never essentially.
What does the radio voice shore in a Canadian context? Gould’s selective chorus is a demonstration of certain normative commitments, formally reiterative of an impasse of representation. The difficulties implicit in broadcast cannot simply be addressed at the level of more and authoritative voices, for it is not the radio voice that is the problem here so much as the body from which it is presumed to emanate.
“I am indeed a Northern listener then,” the Virgilian surveyor McLean proclaims late in the broadcast, “and the pity of it all is that I’m not always able to select what I want to hear. I hear what other people inflict upon me. You know, the noise, the noise of civilization and its discontents.” In this vulgarized Freudian remark, the speaker identifies ‘noise’ as a claustrophobic condition, from which one might escape. While Freud’s text details the aversive attempt by an individual ego to differentiate itself over-against bracing reality, Gould’s soloist attempts identification with a synthetic perspective straddling this opposition: “I do believe able to reflect on that selection makes you more than the mere analyst that most of us claim we are [. . .] in detaching and in reflecting and in listening I suppose I’m able to synthesize, to have these different rails meet in the infinity that is our conscious hope.” However multiply determined, this identification—of transportation infrastructure with a vastly collective desire—remains laudably materialist, emphasizing the production of heretofore unheardof proximities in space.
In heavy handed analogy to symphonic form, The Idea of North ends more or less where it began, generically elsewhere. The metaphorical journey by train concludes with the armchair philosophical pontifications of panelist W. V. MacLean, backed with a defamiliarized recording of Sibelius’ fifth symphony, which threatens at moments to swallow MacLean’s climactic speech. Paraphrasing William James, MacLean posits struggle against provisional alterity as a psychological necessity and subjective virtue. Today, he posits brazenly, “the moral equivalent of war is going North.” Gould concludes the piece with this bon mot, a surprise analogy that relies for its effect on the presumption that Canadian designs in this direction are more often peaceable than not. This is far from certain, and Gould’s finale reminds the listener that the vehicle of this idea is itself susceptible to weaponization, as radio develops in periods of conflict and conquest. Then the least technologically contingent aspect of Gould’s epochal docudrama would appear the most bizarre today—the desire to test one’s conflictual mettle in flight.
How these examples speak to today’s post-broadcast episteme would require another survey altogether. Surely today’s ideological counterpoint would sound far more dissonant, a disputatious and often collaborative din. But this idealized polyvocality may itself manifest a one-sided desire, a dialogic fantasy of which agenda national radio is but one diagram. Practical matters, of land and its capture, are obscured by this restaging of the stakes of colonialism as a conversation rather than an occupation.
A key theme of The Idea of North would be the practice and depiction of utopia for loners, but a counter-message sounds as clearly: that wherever one travels to find oneself, one is forever destined to find other people in their place. There are no definitive arrivals, and everything depends upon what happens next—on hospitality contra the arrogance of occupation. One historical staging of this quandary has been named “Canada,” and Gould’s mythopoetic play for voices is a crucial document of its becoming, flaws and all. As with any broadcast, it is up to each listener to imagine a possible reply.
Featured Image:Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North
CAM SCOTT is a poet, critic, and improvising non-musician from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty One territory. He performs under the name Cold-catcher and writes in and out of Brooklyn. His visual suite, WRESTLERS, was released by Greying Ghost in 2017.
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Multidisciplinary composer and media alchemist Navid Navab and his team at the Topological Media Lab based at Concordia University (Montreal) presented Aquaphoneia, a sound installation which transmutes voice into water and water into air at Biennale Nemo in Paris in December 2017 (and will run until March 2018). I conducted this interview in the context of the first presentation of Aquaphoneia originally conceptualized for Ars Electronica 2016: RADICAL ATOMS and the alchemists of our time. This version of the piece looked at technology through the lens of the living materiality. As Prof. Hiroshi Ishii, of the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group, stated, artists “suggest completely new ways of looking at the role of science in our society and the interplay of technology and nature.”
EB [Esther Bourdages]: The theme of the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival, RADICAL ATOMS – and the alchemists of our time, is very close to the Topological Media Lab’s mission: transmutation and alchemy on the philosophical and phenomenological level. For Aquaphoneia, can you expand on alchemy and specifically on how this art piece stands out from your past work? How did alchemical thought process and production techniques come up in the process of the piece?
NN [Navid Navad]: When the 2016 theme for Ars Electronica Festival was announced I was happily surprised and thought: finally, things are coming to light at a much larger scale. Yes, please can we reverse the still prominent European Modernism’s separations—between the conceptual and the material, the precise and the messy, the sciences and the arts—and go back to the holistic richness of alchemical matter? This transition that we are currently experiencing calls for a shift away from representational technologies: from interfaces to stuff, from objects to fields of matter-in-process, from fixed concepts to processes that enact concepts. For over a decade, we as alchemists have been engaging with “bodies and materials that are always suffused with ethical, vital and material power.”
The Topological Media Lab [TML] is occupied by people who are living to fuse and confuse, ready to unlearn the apparent practicality of isolated disciplines, while playfully improvising new pathways to understanding potential futures. The TML hosts an array of projects for thinking-feeling through poetry-infused-matter and breathing life into static forms—which to me is an effortlessly artistic process, and all the while inseparable from a rigorously philosophical or scientific one. Even though it might take decades for the kinds of computational-materials that we are envisioning today to be engineered from ground up at an atomic level, with what is possible today, we explore how the messy stuff of the world could become computationally charged with the potential for play: sounding, dancing, and co-performing new ways of living with or without us.
Aquaphoneia comes out of this rich ecology of experiments. In Aquaphoneia, voice and water become irreversibly fused. The installation listens to the visitors, and transmutes their utterances into aqueous voice, which then is further enriched and purified through alchemical processes.
To fully realize this liquid dream, we went to great lengths in order to fuse the messy behaviour of matter flowing throughout the installation with meticulously correlated and localized sonic behaviour. For example, the temporal texture of boiling liquid in one chamber is perceptually inseparable from the spectral entropy of simmering voices which then evaporate into a cloud of spectral mist. All of this dynamic activity is finely localized: the sounds acoustically emit exactly from where the action occurs, rather than spatially schizophying loudspeakers elsewhere.
On another hand, our material-computational-centric approach lead to a tough yet rewarding meditation on control and process. As a composer, I had to let go of all desires for immediate control over sounds and surrender important rhythmical and compositional decisions to messy material processes. In Alchemical Mercury (2009), Karen Pinkus quotes Marcel Duchamp: “alchemy is a kind of philosophy: a kind of thinking that leads to a way of understanding” (159). For us, in the process of creating Aquaphoneia, essentially what had to be understood and then given up was our attachment to our far-too-human notions of time and tempo. Instead we embraced and worked within the infinitely rich and pluri-textural tempi of matter. Technically and compositionally this meant that most of our focus had to be placed on merging the continuous richness of material processes with our computational processes through an array of techniques: temporal pattern following, audio-mosaicing, continuous tracking of fields of activity using computer vision and acoustic sensing techniques in order to synthesize highly correlated sonic morphologies, careful integration of structure-born-sound, etc. We were able to co-articulate compositions by constraining material processes sculpturally, and then letting the liquid voice and the laws of thermodynamics do their thing.
[EB]: One of the first elements that we notice in the installation is the brass horn connected to an old Edison sound recording machine, that now turns into liquid instead of wax cylinders. In fact, it came from an Edison talking machine. You repurpose an authentic artifact, but you do not fall into the trap of nostalgia, and neither into the role of collector, but you embrace innovation with a dynamic approach which excavates past media technologies in order to understand or surpass contemporary audio technologies. Where does the use of the Edison horn come from and how does it speak to your relationship with the superposition of history?
[NN]: The history of sound reproduction involves transforming audible pressure patterns or sound energy into solid matter and vice versa. The historic Edison recording machines gathered sound energy to etch pressure patterns onto tinfoil wrapped around a cylindrical drum. Sound waves, focussed at the narrow end of the horn, caused a small diaphragm to vibrate, which in turn caused a miniature steel-blade stylus to move and emboss grooves in the cylinder. The tin foil would later on be replaced by wax cylinders, vinyl disks and eventually digital encoding.
Aquaphoneia engages the intimately recursive relationship between sounding technologies and material transmutations. Our digital audio workstations are an in fact an inclusive part of this history, this endless chain of analog transmutation between energy and matter. Under the fiction of the digital there is always the murmur of electrons and of matter-energy fields in physical transmutation. As J. Fargier writes on an early book on Nam June Paik (1989) “The digital is the analog correspondence of the alchemists’ formula for gold” (translation by NN). Well, yes. The digital revolution has allowed us to shape, compute, purify, and sculpt sounds like never before… but then often at the hefty cost of a disembodying process, with interfaces that are linked to sounds only through layers upon layers of representation, far detached from resonating bodies and the sexy flux of sounding matter.
Aquaphoneia playfully juxtaposes material-computational histories of talking machines within an imaginary assemblage: sounds are fully materialized and messed with tangibly within an immediate medium very much like clay or water or perhaps more like a yet to be realized alchemico-sonic-matter. This odd assemblage orchestrates liquid sounds leveraging intuitive worldly notions—such as freezing, melting, dripping, swishing, boiling, splashing, whirling, vaporizing—and in the process borrows alchemical tactics expanding across material sciences, applied phenomenology, metaphysics, expanded materiology, and the arts. Aquaphoneia’s alchemical chambers set these materials, metaphors, and forces into play against one another. After the initial ritual of offering one’s voice to the assemblage, the aqueous voice starts performing for and with itself, and human visitors have the opportunity to watch and participate as they would when encountering the unpredictable order of an enchanted forest river.
It is also noteworthy that the horn resembles a black hole. The edge of the horn acts like an event horizon, separating sounds from their source-context. Sounds, once having passed the acousmatic event horizon, cannot return to the world that they once knew. Voices leaving the body of their human or non-human speaker, fall into the narrow depths of the horn, and are squeezed into spatio-temporal infinity. Disembodied voices, are immediately reborn again with a new liquid body that flows though alchemical chambers for sonic and metaphysical purification.
Much of my work deals with the poetics of schizophonia (separation of sound from their sources). Sound reproduction (technologies), from Edison’s talking machines to our current systems, transcode back and forth between the concrete and acousmatic, situated and abstract, materialized and dematerialized, analogue and digital. Often sounds are encoded into a stiff medium which then may be processed with an interface, eventually decoded, and re-manifested again as sound. Aquaphoneia ends this nervous cycle of separation anxiety and re-attachment by synthesizing a sounding medium capable of contemporary computational powers such as memory, and adaptive spectro-temporal modulation and morphing. To adapt Marshall McLuhan, instead of encoding and decoding a presumed message with representational technologies, it enchants the medium.
[EB]: There is the tendency to think that artwork from Media Labs are stable and high tech. Aquaphoneia uses analog and digital technologies with a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) touch in the aesthetic. Since your lab is multidisciplinary oriented and influenced by diverse fields of knowledge, can you develop on the DIY dimension in Aquaphoneia under the gaze of Clint Enns—cinematographer in the experimental field of cinema—: “Adopting a DIY methodology means choosing freedom over convenience”?
[NN]: Aquaphoneia is a truly eclectic assemblage lost in time. Aquaphoneia’s mixed form reflects its extremely fluid, collaborative and playful creative process. Instead of coming up with a definitive design and executing it industrially, Aquaphoneia’s realization involved a much more playful process, where every little aspect of the installation—materials, sounds, software, electronics, etc.—was playfully investigated and messed with. Every little detail matters and every process, undulating back and forth between conception to execution, is an artistic process. The research-creation process leading to the works that come out of our lab are as critical to us as the final and fully produced art works. This was also true for the alchemists who, through their process, were seeking to develop new approaches for understanding the world, relating to matter, and surpassing nature.
Our research-creation activities concern experimenting with ethico-aesthetics of collective thinking-making: humans, non-humans, machines, and materials enacting and co-articulating the ever-changing material-social networks of relations which shape them. This DIY art-all-the-way approach, while providing a healthy dose of aesthetic freedom, is also an ethical one: we live with and within our designs and grow with them. That being said, we are not attached to a DIY process in the same way that some maker cultures might be. Sometimes we blindly find and repurpose something that does something cool, complicated, and mysterious and that is fantastic, sort of like philosophy of media meets cyber dumpster diving meets DIY hacker space meets cutting edge tech research meets miniMax (minimum engineering with maximum impact) meets speculative whatever…
For example, at some point we decided to gather sonic vapour in a glass dome and condense it back into drops, which were then guided to fall into the bottom of the installation. The purified drop of voice—sonic “lapis philosophorum”—was to fall into the depths of the earth beneath and shine upward like sonic gold, connecting heaven and earth. We had to execute this opus magnum inside a very small hole in the base of the installation. The water drop needed to be immediately sensed and sonified, leading to sounds coming out of the same hole, along with synchronized light. You can imagine that if we were relying on “black-boxed” technologies and ready-made techniques then this task would have seemed like a nightmare to design and fabricate. The water drop was to fall all the way to the bottom of the hole where it would be acoustically sensed by a small apparatus that had to be acoustically isolated from everything else. Then the result of the sonification had to be pushed through the very same hole with a high degree of intelligibility and in a way that it would be seamlessly localized. Meanwhile, light had to shine through this hole in sync with the sounds but the source of light had to remain hidden.
The solution to this technical puzzle came to us effortlessly when playing around with random stuff. We found a hipster product—a little plastic horn—that was made for turning your iPod into a gramophone. Then a speaker was mounted inside of this plastic horn in order to focus sounds towards the end tip of the horn. The back of the speaker was fully covered with foam and duct tape to stop any sound from escaping anywhere except for where we wanted it to appear. A small hole was drilled into the brass pipe in the base of the installation. Our advanced hipster horn-tip-sound-laser-thing was then inserted, allowing crisp sounds to enter the brass hole and emit from it without any visible clues for the perceiver as to where the speaker was hidden. Meanwhile, a similar lighting solution was created so that in a very small footprint we can focus, direct, and bounce enough directional light in the brass pipe without ever getting in the way of the water drops.
We had to engage with this sort of detailed fabrication/composition process throughout the whole installation in order to come up with solutions to sense the behaviour of the materials and liquids locally and to manifest them sonically and visually so that there would be no separation from local material behaviours and their computational enchantment. In trying to do so we discovered that more often than not, there was no ready-made solution or technique to rely on, and at the same time we didn’t have months ahead of us to engage in an abstract design and fabrication process. We had limited hours of collective play time to leverage and to come up with innovative techniques that we didn’t even know could exist and that was really fun.
Aquaphoneia is a rich sound art piece – a manifesto by itself about innovation and inventiveness. The sound installation demonstrates that the main crafters Navid Navad and his partner Michael Montanaro, in collaboration with other members of the Topological Media Lab, swim easily into the multidisciplinary art. They are are not afraid to experiment and engage with the material, which results in an interlacing of forms, a mixture of historic references, and an interesting fusion of “low” and “high” technology. I was able to catch some of the build up of the art piece, and it was fantastic to witness the lab as a playful messy artistic field with a little team of scholars fusing their different backgrounds in convergence on the marriage of art and science.
Aquaphoneia, a sound installation which transmutes voice into water and water into air at Biennale Nemo in Paris runs until March 2018.
- NAVID NAVAB art direction, sound/installation concept and design, audiovisual composition, programming, behaviour design
- MICHAEL MONTANARO art direction, visual/installation concept, design and fabrication
- PETER VAN HAAFTEN electronics, sound, programming
- consulting assistants: Nima Navab (embedded lighting design) Joseph Thibodeau (electronics)
- research collaboration: Topological Media Lab
Featured Image: Aquaphoneia, Paris, Biennale Némo, 17 October 2017 – 18 March 2018, Credit: Navid Navad, 2017
Esther Bourdages works in the visual arts and technology art field as a writer, independent curator and scholar. Her curatorial research explores art forms such as site-specific art, installation and sculpture, often in conjunction with sound. She has authored many articles and critical commentaries on contemporary art. As a musician, she performs under the name of Esther B – she plays turntables, handles vinyl records, and records soundscapes. She works and lives in Montreal.
Navid Navab is a Montreal based media alchemist, multidisciplinary composer, audiovisual sculptor, phono-menologist, and gestureBender. Interested in the poetics of gesture, materiality, and embodiment, his work investigates the transmutation of matter and the enrichment of its inherent performative quali- ties. Navid uses gestures, rhythms and vibration from everyday life as basis for realtime compositions, resulting in augmented acoustical poetry and painterly light that enchants improvisational and pedestrian movements.
Navad currently co-directs the Topological Media Lab, where he leverages phenomenological studies to inform the the creation of computationally-augmented performance environments. His works, which which take on the form of gestural sound compositions, responsive architecture, site specific interven- tions, theatrical interactive installations, kinetic sound sculptures and multimodal comprovisational per- formances, have been presented internationally at diverse venues such as Canadian Center for Architec- ture, Festival du Nouveau Cinema, Ars Electronica Festival Linz, HKW Berlin, WesternFront Vancouver, McCord Museum, Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Inter- national Digital Arts Biennial, Musiikin Aika Finland, and Festival International Montréal/Nouvelles Mu- siques, among others. www.navidnavab.net
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