Botanical Rhythms: A Field Guide to Plant Music
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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