On March 24th, 2019 the record release party for The Electric Golem’s 6th CD Golemology was held at the Loft in Ithaca, New York. The Electric Golem is an avant-garde synthesizer duo featuring Trevor Pinch and James Spitznagel, that has been in existence for about ten years.
Trevor Pinch is a local sound artist and professor at Cornell University. He is an STS (Science and Technology Studies) and Sound Studies scholar. As a key thinker of STS, Trevor is the coproducer of theories about Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), and the role of users in technological history and innovation. However, Trevor’s interest in dates back much farther; he built his first modular synthesizer when he was a physics student in London in the 1970s.
The other half of The Electric Golem, James Spitznagel, is a multi-media artist who uses the iPad as a musical instrument and to create digital paintings. While he has played many roles in the music and culture industries—guitarist in a rock band, record store owner, art gallery and guitar shop investor, and even business manager for the Andy Warhol Museum—he moved to Ithaca to focus on producing abstract art: digital paintings and experimental, improvisational music. Being an energetic and enthusiastic person who has unrestrained fantasies, James finds that everything around him can be his inspiration.
Pinch and Spitznagel formed the group after Spitznagel read Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco) and realized Pinch also lived in Ithaca. Spitznagel simply looked his name up in the phone book and called him up: “I go, ‘is this Trevor Pinch?’ He said, ‘yes.’ I said, ‘well, you don’t know me, but I just read your book and I love it.’” And then they got together for a beer and have been best friends and collaborators ever since. Once Spitznagel heard about Pinch’s homemade synthesizer, he asked Trevor to try to make something together and it turned out to be a fascinating mixture of analog–Trevor’s synth, Moog Prodigy, and a Minimoog–and James’s digital instruments.
Building from this first moment of discovery, The Electric Golem’s music is electronic, experimental, and totally improvised. Typically, the pieces of music last twenty minutes to half an hour and expresses their interaction with the machines and with each other in the studio. James is much more controlling of the tone and rhythm, and patches the sound as he goes along, whereas Trevor is much more about making spontaneous weird sounds. They complement each other and the creation process is usually by random and spontaneous, as Spitznagel describes: “I didn’t tell Trevor what to do or what to play, but I said, here’s the piece of music I’ve written. He just instinctively knew what add to it.” Reciprocally, “he might just play something that I go, oh, I can weave in and out of the ambient sound he’s putting there.”
For the duo, the process of producing music becomes a shared experience with their listeners. The music is ever changing and evolving. In addition, unexpected drama adds vitality to the palette. “The iPad might freeze up or synthesizer might break somehow,” Spitznagel notes, “that’s happened to us, but we carry on. Like Trevor looks at me and says, it’s not working there. Or, I look at him and go, I have to reboot my computer, it’s not working. But, those times actually inspire us to try new things and go beyond what we are doing.” James explained. Their inspiration comes from the unknown, which just emerges from their practice. “Generally, this sort of music is completely unique to Electric Golem.” Trevor concluded.
The name “Electric Golem” comes from a series of books with Golem in the titles that Trevor collaborated on with his mentor Harry Collins. “The golem is a creature of Jewish mythology,” Pinch and Collins wrote in The Golem, What You Should Know about Science, “it is a humanoid made by man with clay and water, with incantations and spells. It is powerful, it grows a little more powerful every day. It will follow orders, do your work, and protect you from the ever threatening enemy. But it is clumsy and dangerous. Without control, a golem may destroy its masters with its flailing vigour” (1). Noting Trevor’s association with the concept of the Golem, Spitznagel added the “Electric” twist not just as a metaphor for their sound but also because “it’s kind of like a retro name.” The Electric Golem mushroomed from there, and in the past decade they have had many invitations and bookings to play out, receiving the first recording contract from the Ricochet Dream label, and have played with a bunch of notable musicians, such as Malcolm Cecil of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Simeon of Silver Apples, and “Future Man” (aka Roy Wooten), and they haven’t stopped there.
According to Pinch, the key feature of The Electric Golem’s music is its ability to encompass different moods. “I think Electric Golem has become good at one thing: its changing and transitioning from one sort of mood of music to another. And we have become quite good at those transitions. I think people would say that’s what they kind of like about us.” These sorts of slow transitions construct a unique texture of sound that can be quite cinematic, so much so that in 2012, the Electric Golem performed the accompaniment to the silent movie A Trip to the Moon, a special Cornell cinema event. Overall, as improvised experimental music, it is sometimes challenging to listen to, with no regular rhythm or reliable melody. Trevor produces warm, rich drones from the analog side that contrast with the sharper digital rhythms that James programs. In short, the Electric Golem varies between these two affects but the music goes far beyond the representation of emotional states; sometimes it conjures up the feeling of the vastness of space and time.
Experimental music, is a collaboration and negotiation process between instruments and their users. No matter if analog or digital, instruments have autonomy; they are non-human actors with their own agency to some extent. As Trevor Pinch intimates, “I understand the general sort of sound that can be produced, but the particular details of how it will work out, you don’t really know, that’s much more spontaneous, you have to react to that.” Instruments can often be uncontrollable–making their own sounds—so that Electric Golem must respond in kind. “So, it’s sort of like higher level meta-control versus actually doing what you’re doing in response to the instrument that combines together,” Trevor describes, “which I think is the secret to controlling these sorts of instruments.” It is incredible that Pinch and Spitznagel know each other so well—and each know their instruments so well–that they can improvise for long periods with no trouble. Trevor says: “Follow the use of these instruments! Follow the instruments! They are not essentialized. They are just stabilized temporarily.”
On the whole, The Electric Golem shows an artistic form which breaks the traditional paradigm, deconstructs and then reconstructs it, seeking to free sound from the instruments. Their music is beyond pure melody and rhythm, beyond the expression of existence, expressing more of an aesthetic state of transcendence. They challenge what music is, and what musical instruments are; they challenge divisions between the identities of engineer and musician. Electric Golem’s music co-constructs art and technology and binds them together; art, for them, is a mode of presenting technology, and vice versa, technology is a pathway through which art can flourish.
My favorite Electric Golem piece is called “Heart of the Golem.” What is the heart of the Golem? According to Pinch, “It is a mystery, a process of unfolding and discovery. It is somewhere where analog and digital sound meet, and an improvisation.” What the magic is remains unknown and unlimited, just like the future of the Electric Golem.
Featured Image: Courtesy of The Electric Golem
Qiushi Xu is a PhD candidate in the subject of Philosophy of Science and Technology in Tsinghua University, Beijing and in a joint PhD program in the Department of Science and Technology Studies in Cornell University, working with Prof. Trevor Pinch. Her research areas are Sound Studies, STS, Cultural Studies and Gender Studies. Her current research focuses on the sociology of piano sound and the negotiation and construction of piano sound in the recording studio (PhD dissertation), gender issues in recording industry, experimental music, auscultation and sound therapy. She holds an MA in Cultural and Creative Industries from King’s College London; a BA in Recording Arts and a BA in Journalism and Communication from the University of China, Beijing. She is also an amateur pianist, writer, and traditional Chinese painter. As a multiculturalist, she is am fascinated by different forms of art and culture in different cultural contexts.
Welcome to Voices Carry. . . a forum meditating on the material production of human voices the social, historical, and political material freighting our voices in various contexts. What are voices? Where do they come from and how are their expressions carried? What information can voices carry? Why, how, and to what end? In today’s post, Alexis Deighton MacIntyre explores society’s interpretations of voicing, sounding and listening. Inspired by Christine Sun Kim and Evelyn Glennie, Alexis advocates for understanding voicing as movement and rhythm instead of strictly articulated sound. – SO! Intern Kaitlyn Liu
The following post is a companion to Alexis’ voicings essay published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies 3.2.
What is a voice, and what does it mean to voice?
Definitions of the voice may be pragmatic: working titles that depend in part on their institutional basis within ethnomusicology, literature, or psychoacoustics, for example.
Or, to take another strategy, voice is given by an impartial biological framework, a respiratory-laryngeal-oral assembly line. Its product, an acoustic signal, is transmitted via material vibration to an ear, and then a brain. The mind of a listener is this system’s endpoint. Although this functional description may smack of scientific reductionism, the otolaryngeal voice often stands in for embodiment in humanist discourse.
For Adriana Cavarero, the voice means “sonorous articulation[s] that emit from the mouth” (Caverero 2005, 14), involving “breath” and “[w]et membranes and taste buds” (134). Quoting Italo Calvino, she affirms that “a voice involves the throat, saliva.” According to Brandon Labelle, the mouth is “wrapped up in the voice, and the voice in the mouth, so much so that to theorize the performativity of the spoken is to confront the tongue, the teeth, the lips, and the throat” (Labelle 2014, 1). In Labelle’s view, orality is in fact overlooked, “disappearing under the looming notions of vocality” (8), such that his contribution to voice studies is to “remind the voice of its oral chamber” (4). Conclusions such as these inform our subsequent theoretical, methodological, and political theories of both voicing and listening.
Cavarero and Labelle are right to address the erasure of speaking and listening in Western intellectual history. However, to take for granted that voice is always audible sound, always sounded by a certain system, is to make the case for a fragmented brand of vocal embodiment. Rosi Braidotti terms this “organs without bodies”, and her critique of “instrumental denaturalisation,” whereby biotechnology transforms the body “into a factory of detachable pieces,” could also apply to the implicit processes by which discourse delineates the voice (Braidotti 1994, 59).
Yet, a priori constructs like “voice is sound” or “sound is [audibly] heard” have not gone unchallenged. For instance, scholars, artists, and musicians who engage with disability or Deafness resist or redefine taxonomies that ignore or distance other ways of voicing, sounding, and listening. Sarah Mayberry Scott blogs in SO! about the work of Christine Sun Kim, for example, whose performative practice reimagines Western musical norms through a Deaf lens. Kim’s uses of subsonic frequencies and face markers are two of many interventions by which she “reclaims sound” from an aural-centric worldview—not just for herself and other Deaf people, but for all bodies. Indeed, Kim invites hearing people to see and feel familiar social and environmental sounds, to rediscover inaudible channels for themselves, a praxis Jeannette DiBernardo Jones calls the “multimodality of hearing deafly” (DiBernardo Jones 2016, 65)
To hear deafly is thus to enter an expanded field of sound. The same is true of voicing deafly. Kim negotiates her audible voice by “trying on” interpreters, “guiding people to become [her] voice”, and by “leasing” out her own or “borrowing” another’s. But there are also features common to both spoken and signed voices that risk being lost to the spotlight of audition.
For instance, spontaneous speech occurs with concurrent face, torso, arm, and hand movements. These voicing actions unfold in tight synchrony with words, sighs, and facial expressions. In the case of beat gestures, the “meaningless” strokes made with the hands, they are in fact temporally precedent to stressed syllables; that is, manual prosody is perceptually paired with vocal prosody, but materialises a fraction of a second earlier. When psychologists subtly perturb gestures in the hand, they record analogous effects in oral production. This hand-mouth network is even more evident in some non-Western hearing cultures that also use sign language, where distinguishing between spoken and gestured dialogue is both impractical and nonsensical. Taken together, it seems that the body distributes the voice, neither knowing nor caring for its own discursive fencings.
If gesture is a proprioception, or action-form, of vocality, haptic sensation is another way to hear. In her vibrational theory of music, Nina Sun Eidsheim argues that sound is not a static noun, but a process, such that the so-called musical object—or, indeed, any sonic figure—resists stable definition, but is rather contingent on the myriad ways of experiencing material pulsation. Via air, water, architecture, or people, the oscillatory basis of Eidsheim’s framework disrupts not only the divisions of labour amongst the Cartesian senses, but also those between sound, sound producer, and listener—unity from propagation. Such vibrations can be all-consuming, rendering the body, in Evelyn Glennie’s words, as “one huge ear.” They can also lurk, near the bass-end of traffic, or remain as a trace, as in dubstep, whose shuddering basslines connote tactility. Alluding to the scene’s origins in Jamaican sound system, the “wub” effect is the auditory fetishization of equipment failure, the resounding noise of a speaker pushed to uncontrolled, uncontainable movement.
In her TED Talk, Kim explains that “in Deaf culture, movement is equivalent to sound.” A feature common to most human movement is rhythm, the temporal patterns that emerge in speaking, walking, chewing, typing, weaving, hammering. As the banality of these actions suggests, rhythm permeates throughout everyday life. We join our rhythms in a process known to cognitive sciences as entrainment. Sunflowers entrain their circadian cycles to anticipate the path of the sun, fireflies entrain their flashes at a rate determined by species membership, and grebes, dolphins, and humans (among other animals) entrain their social actions. Neuroscientists theorize that even our neurons entrain to another’s speech, either spoken or signed. Simply put, entrainment is being together in time with someone, or some entity, sharing in a temporal perspective. So quotidian is the state of being entrained that we may not notice when we fall into step with a friend or anticipate our turn in a conversation. But it would not be possible without rhythm, which is both a shared construct through which we time our gestures sympathetically, and a sign of subjectivity, an identifier, a distinctive feature by which we can recognise ourselves or another.
Rhythm could therefore form yet another (in)audible nexus within a relational definition of the voice, whose sites could include the larynx, face, hands, cochlea, and on and under the skin, in addition to various inorganic materials. In conversation with John Cage, the hearing composer Robert Ashley considered “time being uppermost as a definition of music,” music that “wouldn’t necessarily involve anything but the presence of people” (Reynolds, 1961). Although Ashley’s “radical redefinition” is stated in temporal terms, the concepts of time, rhythm, and movement are not easily disentangled. Plato explains rhythm as “an order of movement”, while for Jean Luc Nancy, rhythm is the “time of time, the vibration of time itself” (Nancy 2009, 17). As a cycle that is propagated through the medium of entrained bodies, rhythm may well be just another vibration, one suited to Eidsheim’s multisensory groundwork of tactile sound. As with music, the voice need not be “stable, knowable, and defined a priori” (Eidsheim 2015, 22), but dynamic, chimerical, and emergent. Speaking, slinking, signing, swaying—indeed, all our actions, gestures, and locomotions constitute us. Crucially, it is not what we move, but how we move, that is vocal.
Featured Image: “Vocal” by Flickr user ArrrRRT eDUarD
Alexis Deighton MacIntyre is a musician and PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, where she’s currently researching the control of respiration during rhythmic motor activities, like speech or music. Formerly, she studied cognitive science and music at University of Cambridge and Vancouver Island University. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexisdeighton or read her science blog at https://alexisdmacintyre.wordpress.com/
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
The Plasticity of Listening: Deafness and Sound Studies – Steph Ceraso
Re-Orienting Sound Studies’ Aural Fixation: Christine Sun Kim’s “Subjective Loudness” – Sarah Mayberry Scott
Last December, a renowned sound scholar unexpectedly trolled one of my Facebook posts. In this post I shared a link to my recently published article “Beyond Matter: Object-disoriented Sound Art (2017)”, an original piece rereading of sound art history. With an undocumented charge, the scholar attacked me personally and made a public accusation that I have misinterpreted his work in a few citations. I have followed this much-admired scholar’s work, but I never met him personally. As I closely read and investigated the concerned citations, I found that the three minor occasions when I have cited his work neither aimed at misrepresenting his work (there was little chance), nor were they part of the primary argument and discourse I was developing.
What made him react so abruptly? I have enjoyed reading his work during my research and my way of dealing with him has been respectful, but why couldn’t he respect me in return? Why couldn’t he engage with me in a scholarly manner within the context of a conversation rather than making a thoughtless comment in public aiming to hurt my reputation?
Consider the social positioning. This scholar is a well-established white male senior academic, while I am a young and relatively unknown researcher with a non-white, non-European background, entering an arena of sound studies which is yet closely guarded by the Western, predominantly white, male academics. This social divide cannot be ignored in finding reasons for his outburst. I immediately sensed condescension and entitlement in his behavior.
This is not new to me. Both my artistic work and a number of my scholarly works have been purposely ignored or undermined in previous occasions, perhaps due to my non-white, non-European background and epistemology. During the assessment of my doctoral dissertation in a well-known Scandinavian University, for example, the three-member committee harshly attacked the very foundations of my project because of my claim that case studies in Indian cinema could produce important new knowledge in the field of sound studies, media art and film history. However, Indian cinema, the largest producer of films in the global industry, is equally a part of world cinema as European and American cinemas, and studying its sound production would indeed add dimensions to the field of sound studies. Their resistance towards my object of study implied that choosing European cinema would immediately make my hypotheses acceptable.
If we take the field of sound studies as both a context for such objection and a case for observation, notable works such as The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012), The Sound Studies Reader (2012), and Keywords in Sound (2015) have been canonized in the global community of sound researchers by the sheer amount of citations and reviews but have a negligible number of non-White, non-Western contributors. Furthermore, there is a serious lack of representation from the non-White, non-Western scholars and researchers in the bibliographic resources and reference list of these works, which are now considered classics.
In his essay “On Whiteness and Sound Studies,” Gustavus Stadler lamented that scholars of sound studies are overwhelmingly white, and this racial conservatism is limiting the fields’ research as well as social outreach. It is indeed an act of complacent ignorance not to engage with African and Asian thinkers regarding their sonically rich cultures; indeed, many of their works are available, such as in the Harvard Oriental Series. John Stuart Mill noted, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”
I am inspired by my fellow colleagues and peers (of all colors) and personally grateful to some of them for their sympathetic ears, but as a young researcher I cannot help but be concerned about an unfair social divide upheld in sound studies that I feel must be addressed. In my work, both as a sound artist and sound researcher, I have endeavored to bridge this gap in my capacity. Much work needs to be made in pushing the horizons and shifting the perspectives of the field of sound studies. However, the untoward resistances my kind of young scholars from “other” cultural and intellectual traditions met make it difficult to be read widely, let alone be canonized.
I am discussing here my experiences as a case for critical observation. Throughout the development of my doctoral project, “Audible Absence” in the aforementioned Scandinavian university, I had to face a recurring question in most departmental meetings and seminars: what’s the point in supporting my project in the context of European knowledge production? I suspect this constant questioning of an original research contribution comes from a disdain for a non-Western subject. Also, more often than not, in many scholarly gatherings, I observed a tendency by the white-Western scholars to pigeonhole my work as “southeast Asian studies” or “Indian studies,” identifying it only with mere cultural background, therefore deeming it ancillary to the larger fields of Arts and Humanities within which my research aspires for a general and more universal recognition.
Such divisive and sectarian attitude towards my work has perhaps been aiming to impose identity politics so that an overt sense of difference is underscored. This deliberate production and proliferation of difference has been the tool to marginalize the voice of the “other” in the realm of knowledge formation, which, in actual practice, is yet enjoyed and protected mostly for a certain class, color, and/or race. These social and prejudicial borders have been built on the politics of inclusion and exclusion by what cultural theorist Kandice Chuh calls “avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially with racialized difference.”
In a recent interview, the renowned professor of psychology at Harvard Steven Pinker has argued that “identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation (…) when it spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values.” No wonder, the resistance to accepting the scholarly perspectives from non-White scholars and non-Western intellectual traditions has perhaps made the field of sound studies insular to the formation and practicing of new knowledge. The protectionism embedded in encouraging and practicing color and racial difference is a great disservice to humanistic scholarship and enemy of an equal knowledge sharing. With the excuse of tradition and community, the safeguarding of certain groups while ignoring others based on their racial identities has resulted in grave ignorance.
How to engage with such an institutionalized and well-fed “White Canon” coming from outside of it? How to intervene substantially and fruitfully so that the color bias of scholarship is destabilized and there is equal recognition and interest for all intellectual traditions irrespective of color, race, culture and nationality?
As some historians have argued, this so-called “White Canon” is a social and political construct to push the non-White scholarship and knowledge production on the margin. Claimed to be a child of reason and Enlightenment values, the European intellectual tradition was deliberately posed with a “holier than thou” attitude for the imperialist and colonial (mis)adventures Europe had been making in the non-West. In his seminal work Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference renowned historian Dipesh Chakrabarty states: “In the social sciences, these are invariably thinkers one encounters within the tradition that has come to call itself ‘European’ or ‘Western.’ I am aware that an entity called “the European intellectual tradition” stretching back to the ancient Greeks is a fabrication of relatively recent European history.”
The European intellectual tradition has been a fabrication of a recent history, as Professor Chakrabarty notes. Many postcolonial scholars like Chakrabarty have argued that the writing of this history had deep political and hegemonic implications, which was hard to avoid following the colonization of many part of the non-West by Europeans with violent oppression of other thoughts. Philosopher Bryan W. Van Norden, in his new book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017), have claimed that the general disdain, disrespect and ignorance most European scholars have shown to their non-Western counterparts, demonstrates that the European intellectual tradition, which is so obsessed with its communal whiteness and paranoid about the other (non-West), is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic.
Indeed, the most remarkable privilege that white European scholars enjoy—besides, of course, an empowered access to better jobs in the universities and institutional funding–is the entitlement to universal identification and canonization of their work in the respective fields of work, while non-white scholars are all too often pushed into the margins on the excuse of their racial, cultural or mere national identities. The scholars of postmodern studies have stated that the body of scholarship in the Arts and Humanities is biased because the traditional focus of academic studies of Western culture and history has predominantly been on works produced by Western white men. It is no surprise, philosopher Jay Stevenson argues: “[t]raditional literature has been found to have been written by ‘dead white males’ to serve the ideological aims of a conservative and repressive Anglo hegemony […] In an array of reactions against the race, gender, and class biases found to be woven into the tradition of Anglo literature.” Non-white scholars find it much harder to posit their research in the universal canonical consideration; if these scholars are also women-identified and/or queer, it’s even more difficult. This is not only an astoundingly unfair position, but also a dangerous bias.
In the field of sound studies such biases can be found if looked through the lens of an outsider. The awkward silences in response to a new publication, lack of reviews, reluctance to include in canonized reading lists, repeated refusals by western publishing houses, and a lack of citation in mainstream publications, add to this the sporadic incidents of trolling such as the one that I described in the beginning of this piece – all these that I, and many other scholars who come from other background and intellectual traditions, constantly face, act against the foundation of knowledge production, sharing and scholarship.It is not difficult to observe that this vision has major contradictions with the very reason and Enlightenment values from where the tradition claims to originate. This is a serious charge, but one that tries to explain why the rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are ignored by almost all philosophy departments in Europe and the larger West.
As my story shows, the paranoia with which the other voices are greeted in the white canonized community reveals how new voices capable of talking in ‘their’ language freak them out. Heard from this perspective, the social media outburst of the scholar mentioned earlier is not surprising. It is a question of privilege that bothers many of the Eurocentric and white-obsessed scholars, who don’t seem to like–or feel that they even have to acknowledge–that the other voices from outside of the protected areas aim to enter the field and eat the proverbial “cake.”My work–among many other (re)emerging Asian, African and other non-Western researchers–does not seek to snatch part of this same limited “cake,” however, but rather aims to build an improved and larger plate and a wider table altogether, capable of hosting a multiplicity of tastes, colors, and splendors, and holding great pleasure in sharing knowledge among ever-curious and open minds.
Featured Image: White Baffling Material, Stock Image
Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is an Indian-born media artist, researcher, and writer, with a PhD in sound studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands. Prior to his PhD, Chattopadhyay has graduated from the national film school of India specializing in sound, and received a Master of Arts degree in new media from Aarhus University, Denmark researching on sound art. Focussing on sound as his primary medium, Chattopadhyay produces works for installation and live performance broadly dealing with contemporary issues such as climate crisis, human intervention in the environment and ecology, race and migration. Chattopadhyay has received numerous fellowships, residencies and international awards, and his works have been exhibited, performed or presented across the globe. Chattopadhyay has an extensive list of scholarly publication in the areas of contemporary media, cinema and sound studies in leading peer-reviewed journals.Chattopadhyay will be joining the American University of Beirut from 30 August 2018 as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in sound studies.
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becoming a sound artist: analytic and creative perspectives–Rajna Swaminathan
Gendered Soundscapes of India, an Introduction –Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta
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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