Education is never politically neutral. Many of us advocate for social justice when we’re outside of the classroom but struggle to continue that work inside as well, especially with issues that appear on the surface largely unrelated to our disciplines. This inaction maintains the centering of the white experience, continuing to normalize and prioritize it at the expense of all others. Marginalized voices remain marginalized. We don’t need our own students to be directly impacted by policies to advocate on behalf of those who are. This is work we all must do.
While social issues have made important inroads within musicology and ethnomusicology, they rarely make an appearance in music theory or composition, especially in a classroom setting. To begin these conversations, we must expand the scope beyond the purely technical and examine the ways in which music is a social and cultural phenomenon. Understanding how a triad functions, for example, is only part of the story. We must also recognize that any musical activity involves a network of people who might be engaged in any combination of producing, performing, buying, selling, listening, analyzing, teaching, institutionalizing, and so on. Discussing these networks means discussing their persistent systemic inequalities and power differentials, and understanding that these are social and not just musical issues. Cultivating this awareness is crucial in the development of our students as critical thinkers who can question the society in which they live, who can locate injustice and fight to advance social good. Abstract music theory is important, but music theory combined with a social awareness is vital.
Georgetown University hosts an annual Let Freedom Ring! initiative, a recurring project to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. “Teach The Speech,” in particular, is a cross-campus curriculum project where interested faculty and staff incorporate that year’s selected work by Dr. King in our courses and workshops, sparking campus-wide conversations rooted in themes of social justice. The first time I joined the “Teach the Speech” efforts, I redesigned my basic theory class to include guiding principles from King’s entire body of work. In addition to covering the expected chords, scales, and other technical material, we discussed the disparity in representation faced by women and POC within music, viable modes of protest in music, and the possible roles of government sponsorship and censorship of artists. We rooted these issues in the real-life examples of the Grammy’s, the Women’s March, and the threats by the Trump administration to cut funding to the NEA and the NEH. Final projects based on these bigger-picture topics provided students further opportunity to reflect on the ways in which these and similar topics manifest in their own lives, transcending a preoccupation with “notes on a page.”
My second time participating in the “Teach the Speech” initiative, I used a recording of Dr. King delivering “I Have Been to The Mountaintop” as part of a module on sampling for my DJing and production class. Students had to create short tracks using this recording as the only permissible sound source. Anything resembling a kick, snare, hi-hat, melody, or harmony had to be constructed from a sample. Using something we don’t typically consider to be music as the sound source for creating music demonstrates the power of the studio and illustrates just how far creative slicing, dicing, and processing can take us. Beyond these important practical applications, though, the use of speech provides us with a framework for discussing why context matters. Do context and history always travel alongside the immediate acoustic phenomenon of sound? Can we identify something as “the music itself”? Through wrestling with these and related questions, students begin to understand sample-based composition as both a musical and a moral undertaking.
The process of sampling is largely a process of curation, involving a responsibility not just for the product but also for the source. If a student chooses to sample a large-enough portion of Dr. King’s speech, so that one can recognize words, phrases, even full sentences, then her choice includes the layers of extra-musical meaning attached to those words in addition to their musical qualities. “Violence,” for example, has a particular sonic profile and meaning that most listeners understand. How we actually interpret this word depends on many factors, including the context in which it is used in the original source, the identity of the speaker, and any audio processing that students might apply. The addition of distortion, for example, will influence the impact of that word on and its reception by the listener. The sampled word might be a fragment of a larger word, “violence” snipped from “nonviolence,” and never appear in its own right in the source. These and other complex issues involved in the process of sampling exist whether or not the student chooses to engage with them.
If the student samples an extremely small fragment of the Dr. King speech, obscuring the source and working with sound on an almost molecular level, then perhaps these questions go away. Can we still discuss the attendant connotations and denotations of indecipherable fractions of words or slices of the ambient hiss between the words? In this situation, is the origin of the sample still relevant for the work being done? When the ties connecting a heavily processed source to the finished product are untraceable, does it matter where we sampled from? Is white noise simply white noise?
Arriving at these kinds of questions is largely the point of the exercise. With a little deliberation, students realize that there is a very clear distinction between sampling the word “violence” from a speech by Trump and from a speech by MLK. There is a context, a lineage, and a history to samples that lives outside the phenomenon of pure sound, and this holds true even at the molecular level. This is crucial for students to understand, and its implications extend far beyond a music class.
We can, for example, ask students to consider the related question about whether or not it’s possible to separate art from the artist. Can we ever listen to pre-MAGA Kanye with the same ears? How do we interpret a post-MAGA Kanye song about uplift and resilience? What does it mean to watch a film where Harvey Weinstein had a major role in producing? A minor role? Moral dilemmas form a part of every media interaction we have, and similar questions comprise other aspects of our lives. Can we continue to allow the misappropriation of Dr. King’s “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” without acknowledging the “radical” Dr. King? Can we reconcile a country built on expropriation, slavery, and genocide with one whose propaganda extolls the principles of equality and freedom? These are indeed crucial lines of moral inquiry, and our pretending otherwise enables current systems to remain in place. Sampling King’s speech enables my students to engage with those lines of inquiry from an angle they have not considered before: at the level of sound.
This is work we all must do. Within academia, we need to combat injustice inside the classroom as well as outside to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. One way we can engage is through careful attention both to the examples we choose and the way we contextualize them. Students and educators alike need to understand the political nature of education that is too often a means of upholding the power structures within society that position whites at the top, and white males at the very top. These largely invisible systems have very real impacts on our lives, and the only way we can evolve to a more just society is by questioning their seeming inevitability. We must foster dialogue that transcends the classroom. We must engage with social problems. We must look beyond the accumulation of knowledge as an end in itself. We must, in short, to do good. This is work we all must do.
Featured image: “Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial” by Flickr user Cocoabiscuit, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dave Molk teaches composition and theory at Georgetown University. He’s close friends with producer Olde Dirty Beathoven, a founding member of District New Music Coalition, and a board member of New Works for Percussion Project. Outside of music, Dave is a leader of CCON, an organization devoted to supporting undocumented communities in higher ed in the DMV. Find him online at https://www.molkmusic.com/ and @DaveMolkMusic.
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A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
“World Music,” both as a concept and as a convenient marketing label for the global music industry, has received a fair deal of deserved criticism over the last two decades, from scholars and musicians alike. In his famous 1999 op-ed, David Byrne wrote that the term is “a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of Western pop culture. It ghettoizes most of the world’s music.” Ethnomusicologists have aldo challenged the othering power of this term, inviting us to listen to “worlds of music” and “soundscapes” as the culture of particular places and times, suggesting that these sonic encounters with difference might teach “us” (in “the West”) to consider how our own musical worlds are situated in social and historical processes.
While this has been an important move toward recognizing the multiplicity of musicking practices (rather than reinforcing a monolithic “Other” genre), the study of “musical cultures” runs the risk of territorializing musical “traditions.” Linking them to geographically delineated points of origin, nations or homelands that are made to seem natural, fixed, or timeless often overlooks the heterogeneity of places, essentializing the people who make and listen to music within, across, and in relation to their ever-changing borders. The challenge for music critics and scholars has been–and still is–to delegitimize the alienating broad brush of the “world music” label without resorting to a classification system that reifies music production and circulation into exotic genres or fetishized “local” traditions.
In her 2018 book, On Site, In Sound: Performance Geographies in América Latina(Duke University Press), Kirstie A. Dorr demonstrates a method for conceptualizing relations between music and space while avoiding the pitfalls of colonial and capitalist definitions of “culture” and “identity.” She takes the term “performance geography” from Sonjah Stanley Niaah, whose discussion of Jamaican dancehall employs this analytic as “a mapping of the material and spatial conditions of performance: entertainment and ritual in specific sites/venues, types and systems of use, politics of their location in relations to other sites and other practices, the character of events/rituals in particular locations, and the manner in which different performances/performers relate to each other within and across different cultures” (Stanley Niaah 2008: 344). Dorr looks at “musical transits” rather than musical cultures, focusing on the politics and relations within sound and performance across South America and its diasporas; one particular relation serves as the central argument of the book: “that sonic production and spatial formation are mutually animating processes” (3).
Three conceptual frames help Dorr follow the musical flows that push against national and regional boundaries sounded by the global music industry: listening, a form of attention toward the interplay of sensory content, form, and context; musicking, or conceptualizations of music-making in terms of relationships and creative practices, rather than the musical “works” they produce and commodify; and performance as “a technique of action/embodiment that. . .potentially reshapes social texts, relationships, and environments” (14-16). Through close listenings to performances in Peru, San Francisco, and less emplaced sites such as YouTube and the “Andean Music Industry,” Dorr makes a strong case for performance geographies as creative decolonial strategies, both for participants in musical transits and for scholars who imagine and invent the boundaries and trajectories of musicking practices.
Nearly a century after Peru won its independence from Spain, limeño playwright Julio Baudouin debuted El Cóndor Pasa, a two-act play promoting national unity through a tale of indigenous miners in a struggle against their foreign bosses. The play’s score, composed by musician and folklorist Daniel Alomía Robles, weaves Peruvian highland music into Western-style arrangements and instrumentation, and was widely received by its 1913 audience as the sound of what Peru was to become: a modern nation firmly rooted in the cultures of its indigenous peoples.
In the century that followed, the score’s homonymous ballad has been interpreted and recorded by countless artists around the world. Easily the most well-known rendition of this famous melody is Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could),” (1970) which Dorr credits with catalyzing a Latin American music revival as well as spurring on a wave of Euro-American musicians and producers who collaborated with and brought into the international spotlight a number of groups who otherwise would have remained in relative obscurity. The tendency to see these projects as the work of (typically white) Westerners “discovering” and “saving” or paternalistically “curating” the dying musical cultures of the world, Dorr suggests, is part and parcel of a World Music concept that frames “primitive” traditions as fair game for extraction and appropriation into innovative sonic hybrids.
The “exotica” category follows the same logic, as the case of Yma Sumac illustrates. From the beginning of her career in the early 1940s with el Conjunto Folklórico Peruano to her 1971 psychedelic version of “El Cóndor Pasa,” Sumac’s vocal versatility and stylistic experimentations map out an experience of Andean indigeneity that Dorr hears in stark contrast to the narratives of the global music industry. While Capitol Records performed their own geography via their marketing of this sexualized “Incan princess,” the singer strategically composed her own sonic-spatial imaginary, not rejecting the difference suggested by “exotica,” but by synthesizing a “space-age” modern aesthetic with traditional songs. Dorr challenges us to listen to Sumac’s “El Cóndor Pasa” against Simon’s arrangement, thinking of her performative dissonances as disruptions of “the static geotemporal imaginaries of ‘authentic indigeneity’ that have most often informed the ballad’s deployment” (59).
If Chapter One makes a case for performance’s potential to shape notions of place and time, Chapter Two explores “spatial(ized) relations of musicking” (68) through a broader consideration of market strategies and the politics of sound in public space. Putumayo serves as another classic example of the global music industry’s pandering to multicultural idealism, promoting itself as “lifestyle company” that brings conscious capitalism into the curation of musical worlds. Dorr keeps her critique of Putumayo rather brief, but uses it as a convincing contrast for the focus of this chapter: the informal streams of economic activity and performance that she calls the “Andean music industry” (AMI). Among other examples from transnational and virtual “sites,” the Andean bands that performed in San Francisco’s Union Square throughout the 1990s demonstrate how performance geographies can challenge state and capitalist power while simultaneously running parallel to the marketing and distribution practices of the world music industry.
The AMI story is one of migration and the formation of a pan-Andean diaspora, of busking and bootlegging tactics that tested the boundaries of zoning and noise regulations as well as California’s immigration and labor policies, and of transposing music networks onto the internet when public performance became too precarious. It is also another case of dissonance, in which musicians willfully use their own cultural difference to their advantage, but not without consequences for poor musicians in South America; a telling example is the “Music of the Andes” CD, a mass-produced compilation used by various groups who, instead of having to record and press their own albums, could simply print their own covers for the Putumayoesque compilation and sell them to their none-the-wiser U.S. audiences (84).
But if the diasporic politics of the AMI came up short in challenging a monolithic representation of “Andean culture” or in highlighting the dynamic transits of Andean fusions such as chicha and Nueva Canción, the daily performances of street musicians in the race- and class-ordered Union Square support Dorr’s argument about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and space: “This unmediated display of embodied and sonic ‘otherness’ threatened the coherence of the square’s representational function by converting it into a spectacle of work and play for a population upon whose concealed labor the economic foundations of California’s wealth largely depend: undocumented migrant workers from the global South” (81).
Elsewhere in 1990s San Francisco, musicians, artists, and activists formed a collective that, like the busking Andean groups, challenged dominant notions of public and private space while performing its own transnational and migratory experiences of Latinidad. In Chapter 4, Dorr relates the story of La Peña del Sur, a grassroots organization in the Mission District and, like the many anti-imperialist peñas popular throughout Latin America since the 1960s, a space for artists to perform or display their work for local audiences. While this peña provided a community for undocumented immigrants and local residents threatened by gentrification, it also served as an unsettling force against the sort of geographies that separate “queer space” from “heterosexual space” without regard for how these neighborhoods are also classed and racialized.
The founder and director of La Peña del Sur, Chilean exile Alejandro Stuart, was among several queer community members whose efforts constituted their shared space as a challenge to normative boundaries, a site for musicking that engendered dialogue among a wide range of people with divergent visions and motivations. Community organizers and students of cultural sustainability would do well to read Dorr’s account of this decade-long experiment that “enabled the exploration of sound-based solidarities rooted in the identification of common historical and political ground through improvisation and participatory performance” (168).
Between these two compelling tales of the dynamic relationship of sound and space in San Francisco, Chapter 3 explores the significance of race, nation, gender, and sexuality within the performance geographies of several Afro-Peruvian artists. Dorr traces the movements of performers and activists who challenged the colonial boundaries that framed blackness as “antithetical to the emergent nation” (111); unlike the indigenous traditions that could be appropriated for an imagining of Peru as modern yet firmly rooted in history, Afro-Peruvian bodies and sounds were treated as contaminants within the postcolonial order.
Listening to Black feminist performance geographies, from Peru’s Black Arts Revival in the ’60s and ’70s to the recent hemispheric collaborations of “global diva” Susana Baca, one can hear the formation of not only such racially imagined communities as “the coastal” and the “Afro-Latinx diaspora,” but also of “the body.” A powerful case of this latter sort of performance is heard in the lyrics and experiences of Victoria Santa Cruz, who, in her choreographed, cajón- and chorus-accompanied poem, “Me Gritaron Negra,” contests the ways in which “[t]he physical contours of her body – her lips and skin and hair – become a geography inscribed with social meaning, an ideological imposition intended to enact and legitimate her ongoing displacement” (121).
Santa Cruz’s pedagogical and performative practices, in particular, reveal why Dorr has chosen sound – and not only broader analytics of performance and musicking – as a central theme to explore in terms of its relation to places and bodies. While this book might leave a few sound studies scholars wanting more elaborate description of particular sonic phenomena or ethnographic consideration of how sound is imagined among Dorr’s interlocutors, a few examples in particular are keys to thinking about how sound signifies, and is signified by, racially mapped bodies and places.
Most intriguing here is a discussion of Santa Cruz’s 1971 book, Discovery and Development of a Sense of Rhythm, which outlines the artist’s approach to “listen[ing] with the body” and tuning in to “rhythm’s Afro-diasporic logics” (116). A pedagogy and practice developed well in advance of Henri Lefebvre’s theory of rhythmanalysis, Santa Cruz’s concept of ritmo–internal rhythm— deserves consideration alongside the work of Amiri Baraka, Jon Michael Spencer, Fred Moten, and Daphne Brooks as crucial for thinking about how Black aesthetics and diasporic sensibilities are cultivated through sound and capable of mobilizing new mappings of bodies and their worlds.
On Site, In Sound also calls for renewed thinking on sonic-spatial relations and the meanings that emerge from within them – how the sounds of particular Latin American voices and instruments come to be understood as masculine or feminine, indigenous or modern, exotic or local. Although “sound” as a specific performative or sensory medium might seem, at times, only one among many phenomena examined within the book’s threefold conceptual framing – listening, musicking, and performance – Dorr weaves it throughout her own performance geography where it takes on multiple forms and scales, challenging even the very boundaries defining what sound “is.” More importantly, this is a geography that scholars of “the sonic” or “music worlds” should read (and hear) as a reminder of sound’s unique ability to create and transcend boundaries – but rarely without a great deal of dissonance.
Featured Image: “Gabriel Angelo, Union Square,” by Flickr User Brandon Doran
Benjamin Bean is a PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at The University of California, Davis. His research interests include Afro-Caribbean music and sound, food and the senses, Puerto Rico, religion and secularism, and the Rastafari movement. During his undergraduate studies at Penn State Brandywine and graduate studies in cultural sustainability at Goucher College, Ben’s fieldwork focused on reggae music, the performativity of Blackness, and the Rastafari concepts of Word, Sound, and Power and I-an-I. His current fieldwork in Puerto Rico examines flavor, taste, and marketing in the island’s growing craft beer movement. Ben was formerly a vocalist and bass guitarist with the Philadelphia-based roots reggae band, Steppin’ Razor.
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SO! Reads: Dolores Inés Casillas’s ¡Sounds of Belonging!–Monica De La Torre
SO! Reads: Roshanak Khesti’s Modernity’s Ear–Shayna Silverstein
On April 2, 2018, the MIT CoLab published the incredible Listening to the City Handbook: Community Research and Action through Sound and Story, a 181-page toolkit dedicated to furthering civic engagement as expressed in sound studies research, art, and pedagogy. Free and downloadable via the CoLab website, Listening to the City works toward “cultivating empathy and developing a multi-layered understanding of place. . .[while urging] academics and practitioners alike to explore emergent methods for making meaningful change within communities,” as the book’s overview states (10). Assembled by Allegra Williams (Project Curator and Principal Author) and Maggie Coblentz (Researcher and Graphic Designer), the book offers engaging, accessibly written lesson plans, practical strategies, best practices, worksheets, and real-life community models from organizations such as LA Listens, the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, the Urbano Project, the Frontier of Change Soundwalk, and OJBKFM Third Coast Pop-Up Community Radio.
Listening to the City the book began as the experimental conference Listening to the City: Engagement, Exploration + Intervention through Sound held in Cambridge, Massachusetts (and the Greater Boston Area) on May 25-26 2017. A National Endowment for the Arts-funded collaboration between the MIT Community Innovators Lab, (CoLab), LA Listens, and the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI), the free conference offered an innovative, interactive weekend that brought artists, activists, and academics together to discuss sonic orientations to social change.
For a review of the conference, click here.
When conference attendees began excitedly sharing assignments, drafts of grants, syllabi, and other resources via Google Drive, the organizers realized the necessity to commemorate the conference and widen the conversation. If folks at the center of the conversation were this starved for like-minds and start-up materials, then the greater need for a handbook was definitely out there. In the months following the conference, Williams and Coblentz conducted interviews with attendees, followed up on sources, led testing and feedback sessions, and organized the ensuing material into sections based on eight emerging methods: meditative listening, audio mapping, soundwalking, personal storytelling, pop up listening, drama, story mapping, and photovoice.
In the introduction, Williams and Coblentz identify four key guiding principles for Listening to the City, as both a volume and a culmination of a collaborative research process. They selected projects, methods, and practices for the book based on 1) accessibility–having a low barrier of entry for participants, 2) transferability–how readily the material could be used across disciplines and in varying communities, 3) high levels of participation and collaboration, and 4) possibility for transformation–strong interest in enacting community change. By compiling and sharing these methods more widely,” Willams and Coblentz write, “the creators of this handbook hope others will come to see the unique power they hold to uplift and amplify critical community voices and their struggles through community research and action” (16-17).
Collaborators and contributors to the volume include Allegra Williams, Maggie Coblentz, Kenneth Bailey, Jessica Blickley, Douglas Burnham, Emily Cohen, Erik DeLuca, Katie Diamond, Rachel Falcone, Michelle Fine, Jocelyn Frank, Terra Graziani, Matt Green, Elisa Hamilton, Krista Harper, Dey Hernandez, Josie Holtzman, Aurie Hsu, W.F. Umi Hsu, Salvador Jiménez-Flores, Nathan John, Steve Kemper, Beau Kenyon, Isaac Kestenbaum, Jonas Kirkegaard, Lori Lobenstine, Stella Aguirre McGregor, Liz Ogbu, Anthony Peña, James Rojas, Katy Rubin, Catherine Sands, Katherine Shozawa, Jennifer Stoever, Brett Stoudt, María Elena Torre, and Marc Weinblatt.
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SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory–Stuart Fowkes
SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Brownell and Jon M. Wargo
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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