Zepelim - Misophonia

Download – Tracklist (pdf)

This installment of Zepelim is an exploration of easily overlooked daily sounds like lip smacking, chewing, breathing, sniffling, coughing and sneezing. For some of us, these sounds might be annoying to hear, but for a small, discrete population, they are sudden triggers of aggressive impulses and fight/flight responses. This condition has been named Misophonia and is a form of decreased sound tolerance characterized by highly negative reactions to the experience of hearing specific sounds. Misophonia has only recently started to be recognized by the mental health community and has just been given media attention for the first time. In this hour, Zepelim presents a sound collage of several reports on the subject of Misophonia alongside pieces by composers who work with sounds that could trigger episodes of profound distress.

Misophonia: Annoyance Beyond Annoyance

city-noiseNoise is all around us. It bursts from all corners – radios, engines, machines, advertising, traffic, the internet. Noise marks the social codes of human life. It makes the environment recognizable and ensures a soothing feeling of safeness against the predatory silence. But from the broad waveband of vibrations that constitute the everyday life of noises, there are some intruding sounds that make us wince. The sound of fingernails scraping across a chalkboard or the sound of two pieces of styrofoam being rubbed together are considered universal stimuli for an automatic and visceral reaction of dislike. But how can these sounds provoke such a strong negative reaction? The paper Psychoacoustics of a chilling sound suggests that our negative response to scraping sounds might come from a vestigial reflex related to the warning cries of monkeys or from a sound resemblance to predators’ vocalizations. A recent study conducted by Trevor Cox tries to pin down the reason why we dislike disgusting sounds by analyzing a set of 34 sounds. Trevor Cox reached three main conclusions: first, the study seemed to confirm the prior connection between scraping sounds and a vestigial response of survival acquired by our ancestors. Second, the most disgusting sounds were the ones associated with bodily excretions and secretions like the sounds of vomiting, sniffling, eating an apple, coughing, spitting, etc., among which the sound of vomiting was rated the most horrible of the disgusting sounds (hear the full clip here). Third, the study found that none of the sounds provided responses consistent with a disgust reaction linked to disease avoidance and survival. This may suggest that our reactions of disgust towards certain sounds may be socially-learned and vary according to the cultural meaning attributed to them and whether it is acceptable or unacceptable to make disgusting sounds in public.

An important factor in coming to dislike certain sounds is the extent to which they are considered meaningful. The noise of the roaring sea, for example, is not far from white radio noise (…) We still seek meaning in nature and therefore the roaring of the sea is a blissful sound. Torben Sangild in The Aesthetics of Noise

Misophonia Eating 2

For the ones suffering from Misophonia, it seems there are different processes in motion when perceiving certain sounds. The trigger sounds of Misophonia are perceived as something beyond annoyance or disgust — they are invasive, intrusive and associated with feelings of offense and violation. Bursts of rage are commonly described by people who suffer from Misophonia. The reason for such a strong reaction is still up for debate.

The not so well-tuned brain?

Some audiologists are suggesting that these heightened emotional responses can be explained by a hyperconnectivity between the auditory, limbic and autonomic nervous systems. Other studies have found associations between Misophonia and other psychiatric conditions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, but many patients with Misophonia appear to have no other major emotional condition.

Portrait of a Misophonic

There are several conditions characterized by a decreased tolerance to sounds. While Misophonia is a dislike of specific sounds, Hyperacusis is a lowered tolerance to most kinds of sounds above a certain intensity. Misophonia also differs from Phonofobia, which is the fear of any sound, as well as from the Exploding Head Syndrome, which is the hearing of loud unexpected sounds while sleeping. The prevalence of Misophonia among the general population is still indeterminate. However, the high number of communities growing all over the internet (Sound Sensitive Community, Misophonia UK, reddit, Stop the sounds …) may suggest that this condition could be more frequent than initially supposed. Misophonia -noisy_eaters The term Misophonia was first coined by Margaret and Pawel Jastreboff (2000). However, the use of this term is seen by specialists in the medical community as an anecdotal term. Some prefer the term Sound-Rage (Krauthamer, 2013), others believe that Soft Sound Sensitivity Syndrome, 4S  (Johnson, 1999) is a better descriptor of this condition. Nevertheless, the term Misophonia caught on among the general public after an article published in The New York Times in 2011, followed by a high number of people sharing their experiences on various media platforms (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). For the first time people could give a name to something they thought was just a weird, idiosyncratic personality trait. The case reports on Misophonia all describe an abnormal reaction to daily low-volume sounds and experiences of blood boiling rage triggered by sound. The strategies to cope with such distress usually lead to social isolation or the avoidance of certain situations like family dinners, the movie theater, or the workplace. Other strategies involve the use of earplugs, the search for auditory distractions like music (also auditory protection under white noise, pink noise or brown noise), the mimicking of triggers to cancel out sounds, the use of internal dialog to help calm down, and the asking of others to stop making the sounds. The coping mechanisms to deal with the episodes of rage may vary according to personality traits. While some people may internalize the experience of distress, others may easily snap or act out towards the person making the sounds. In the majority of the cases, misophonia seems to have its onset in pre-puberty (around the age of 8-10) with lifelong persistence.

An Introduction to Misophonic Music

Zepelim - Cage - Misophonia Between 1966 and 1967, John Cage and Morton Feldman recorded four open-ended conversations, called Radio Happenings, at the studios of radio station WBAI in New York.  Among many topics, Feldman expresses his annoyance with sonic intrusions blasted from several radios on a trip to the beach. Cage’s solution for the growing annoyance of his friend Feldman is to change the perception of unwanted sounds to sound sources for musical composition:

Well, you know how I adjusted to that problem of the radio in the environment, very much as the primitive people adjusted to the animals which frightened them and which probably, as you say, were intrusions. They drew pictures of them on their caves. And so I simply made a piece using radios. Now, whenever I hear radios – even a single one, not just twelve at a time, as you must have heard on the beach, at least – I think, “Well, they’re just playing my piece”. John Cage, Radio Happenings.

Cage proposes a remedy via appropriation of environmental intrusions, making the annoying sounds his own. The emotional charge associated with the sound annoyances is reverted to a positive pole of affection. The sound intrusions become part of the self. They no longer exist as absolute external entities trying to intrude their way in. Ultimately, there are no sonic intrusions since the entire field of sound is desirable for composition.

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. John Cage.

Can the same line of thought be applied to annoying sounds? Paying attention to aversion stimulus and increasing our exposition to them may be a healthy way to deal with trigger sounds. But what if it’s possible to bring these sounds even closer to our sense of identity and change their representation of intrusion by playing with them: editing chews, cut-up sneezes, sound assemblages of snores and nose whistles, performing coughs and slurps, singing the poetics of throat clearing and preforming hiccups.


Is it possible to redefine Misophonic trigger sounds as Misophonic music?

If so, Misophonic music could be defined as any composition able to provoke the urge to flee the auditory scene, made up of trigger sounds produced by normal body functions such as breathing, sniffling, coughing, sneezing, chewing and others. Examples of such compositions can already be found in the realms of the sound poetry, utterance based music, and other sound art practices. The trigger sounds can be grouped as:

1. Sounds associated with eating.

2. Sounds made by the mouth/throat (hiccups, throat clearing, aahs, S sound).

3. Sounds made by the nose (sniffing, nose breathing; nose whistling).

4. Sounds made by the human body (kissing, skin rubbing, joint cracking).

Oral Oddities

Sound poetry is a hybrid poetic form that exists between speech, music and performance. As the avant-garde progressively expanded to incorporate the entire scope of sound into composition, sound poetry followed a similar siren by using all sounds capable of being produced by the human voice and by exploring new vocal techniques and non-semantic properties of language. Sound poetry calls for coughing, spitting, breathing, lip smacking, hissing, mouth tensions and releases, the very same triggers underlying episodes of Misophonia. Sound Poetry: A CatalogAccording to Steve McCaffery, the practice of sound poetry has always been present throughout the history of Western literature, from Aristophanes to Christian Morgenstern and Lewis Carroll. Although, sound poetry has never constituted a ‘movement’, McCaffery loosely distinguishes three main phases of its development. The first phase, called paleotechnic era, comprises of ancient and medieval practices of chant, non-sense syllabic mouthings, language games, nursery rhymes and folk-songs (ex. Navajo Songs, Inuit games and songs). The second phase of sound poetry encompasses the poetry of the Russian avant-garde (zaum‘ or beyonsense), the Italian futurists (parole in libertà / words-in-freedom; F.T. Marinetti) and the German Dada (‘verse ohne Worte‘, Hugo Ball; Kurt Schwitters) that helped to free the word from its semantic functions. The third phase starts in the 1950s marked by the shift in technology and the availability of recording instruments like the tape recorder and the willingness to embrace this new technology as a compositional tool. The quintessential sound poet of this period was Henri Chopin, who adopted the tape recorder and the studio to manipulate his speech and mouth sounds into the smallest vocables of his voice. Chopin uses the microphone to explore and amplify the sounds of his mouth and throat.

Sound poetry is a new form of art, in which linguistic resources are unfolded in all their richness, and with the aid of a single instrument  – or multi-instruments – the mouth, which is a discerning resonator, capable of offering us several sounds simultaneously as long as these sounds are not restricted by the letter, the phoneme, or by a precise or specific word. Henri Chopin, An Open Letter to Aphonic Musicians, 1967

[Henri Chopin, Les Pirouettes Vocales Pour Les Pirouettements Vocaux]

Henri Chopin With the tape recorder, the constraints of the body are no longer the last parameter in composition. Chopin developed his self-styled audio-poems with multitrack spatialization of word fragments, superimposed mouth sounds and ‘vocal micro-particles’ creating dense and uncanny sonic textures. By magnifying the small and unheard mouth sounds, Henri Chopin revealed a sounding body that can be violent and intrusive. While Chopin relied mainly on electronic devices to amplify and deconstruct speech and mouth sounds, sound poets like François Dufrêne and Gil J Wolman tended to preserve the corporeality and the raw quality of oral sounds. Dufrêne and Wolman’s work leave behind the remaining traces of language to bring forward a more glottal and guttural performance. The mouth is spasmodic and phlegmatic, exhaling moans, spits, chokes, wheezes and breaths. This sound poetry empty of words and vocables is an hyper-expression of the bodily energy that gives rhythm to the poem.

the BREATH alone founds the poem—rhythm and outcry, that cry, content contained, until now, of the poem: of joy, of love, of anguish, of horror, of hate, but a cry. François Dufrêne in OU, Alga Marghen

Like Dufrêne and Wolman, the sound poet Paul Dutton creates oral soundscapes with his voice usually without the help of electronic effects or processing, without feedback or overdubs.Jean Paul Curtay Instead, Dutton explores the limits of his voice, glottis, tongue, lips and nose as the medium of compositions calling upon techniques involving breath releases, reverberation, frequency shifts and vocal fold vibrations. He coined the term Sound Singing as an inclusive term to all sonic dimensions of language: sound, speech, semantics, noise —  the abstract and the literary. Dutton recordings are often comprised of a roller-coaster of dysphoric moods: annoyance, anguish, frustration, and hysteria — as can be heard on his record Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging.

[Paul Dutton, Lips Is, Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging]

Paul Dutton was also a member of the first sound-poetry ensemble The Four Horsemen and is a member of the CCMC trio with John Oswald and Michael Snow. He has collaborated with sound poets like Phil Minton, Koichi Makigami, David Moss and Jaap Blonk. Jaap BlonkThis last sound poet, Jaap Blonk, is a Dutch composer, vocalist and improviser bridging the gap between the Schwitter’s Dada-constructivism and a contemporary approach to sound poetry. Jaap Blonk started as a composer in 1977, originally playing saxophone (on Splinks and BRAAXTAAL) and started to perform sound poetry later on. Many of Blonk’s vocal compositions are based on detailed graphical scores and symbolic scripts that trace sound-maps of the tongue, lips and larynx. The wide range of vocal sounds produced by Blonk led him to create an extension to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) called BLIPAX (Blonk’s IPA extended) to represent his mouth sounds. The result is a system of drawings and changing forms that give a visual representation to his sound poems. Blonk’s inventive sound poetry covers extensive ground in the area of vocal performance, from improvised utterance to invented languages, extreme mouth sounds, and phonetic studies.

For more on sound poetry listen to History of Sound Poetry: An Introduction by Charles Amirkhanian (KPFA,1976) and the book of essays collected by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound. 

Jaap Blonk's Prelabior'

Fluxus: Eat, Burp, Cough, Perform!

The emergence of Fluxus is strongly linked to Cage’s 1957-59 class at New School for Social Research in New York. During that period, Cage taught musical composition to a group of artists – George Brecht, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow and the poet Jackson MacLow – who would become the founding members of Fluxus. Cage’s ideas on chance, non-intentionality, mix-media aesthetics and musicalized sound were expanded upon by his students through music, performance and poetry. George Bretch’s Event Score was one of the best known innovations to emerge from these classes. Allan Kaprow - How to make a happeningThe Event Score was a performance technique drawn from short instructions usually written on small paper cards, like a haiku. Each Event Score framed everyday live actions as a minimal performance to be executed before an audience, alone, in a group, or in one’s mind. Fluxus events advanced the Cagean idea that all sounds can function as music to the concept that everyday life actions are music. Daily acts like chewing, coughing, licking, eating or preparing food were considered by themselves ready-made works of art. Many Fluxus artists like Shigeko Kubota, Yoko Ono, Mieko Shiomi, and Alison Knowles saw these activities as forms of social music.

The Event is a metarealistic trigger: it makes the viewer’s or user’s experience special. (…) Rather than convey their own emotional world abstractly, Fluxus artists directed their audiences’ attention to concrete everyday stuff addressing aesthetic metareality in the broadest sense. Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience

Social actions like eating or cooking were extensively explored by Fluxus artists in the many celebratory Fluxbanquets and Fluxus events. According to Hannah Higgins, Fluxus food work often emphasized the rituals of eating, the associations between food and nonfood, adventurous eating (like Flux Mystery Food, re-labeled canned food) and the obsessive measuring and counting of food’s characteristics in a society concerned with personal hygiene and self-control. For instance, Alison Knowles produced several famous Fluxus food events like Make a Salad (1962), Make a Soup (1962), and The Identical Lunch (1967-73).

The Identical Lunch began with Knowles’s realization that each day she would eat the same lunch: a tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat toast with butter, no mayo, and a cup of buttermilk or the soup of the day at Riss Foods Diner in Chelsea. Philip Corner then turned Knowles’s lunch habit into a score (The Identical Lunch: Philip Corner’s Performances of a Score by Alison Knowles, 1973) and a journal (Journal of the Identical Lunch, Nova Broadcasts Press,1971), documenting all the variations within the identical meal. Artists and friends came along and tried the same meal reporting and recording their own experiences. It was about having an excuse to get to talk to people, to notice everything that happened, to pay attention, explained Knowles in a recent rendition of The Identical Lunch at MOMA. In 1971, George Maciunas made the following suggestion: put it all into a blender.

Fluxus’ artists continued to play out the multiple performance possibilities around the social rituals of food. By radically isolating the gestures and actions of eating and handling food, several event scores were solely centered in the sounds of chewing, crunching, nibbling, gnawing and gulping. Philip Corner’s Carrot Chew Performance is a perfect example of this. Corner’s performance piece is based on the instruction of eating a carrot. Carrots are given to audience, then instructions are given on the speed and bite size until the last piece of carrot is swallowed.

[Philip Corner, Carrot Chew Performance, Tellus #24]

Also, Mieko Shiomi‘s Shadow Piece No. 3 calls attention to the sound of amplified mastication while the performer is hidden behind a screen eating fruit.

Shadow Piece No.3

Performers eat various fruits behind a white screen. A light projects their shadows on the screen. Eating sounds may be amplified. (1966)

Shiomi’s work is one of meticulousness and purism. Her pieces are marked by actions of subtle motion and slow alterations of state, like the piece Disappearing Music for Face, in which a smile very slowly fades into a neutral facial expression.

Who invented coughing? Yoko Ono!

Yoko Ono - GrapefruitCoughing is a form of love. In 1961, Yoko Ono composed a 32 minute, 31 second audio recording called Cough Piece, a precursor to her instruction Keep coughing a year (Grapefruit). In this recording the sound of Ono’s cough emerges periodically from the indistinct background noise. Ono’s continuous coughing throughout the piece invites for new awareness of mouth and throat sounds. As many pieces of Fluxus, the Cough Piece plays with the concept of time, prolonging the duration of an activity beyond what is considered socially acceptable. While listening to this piece, Yoko Ono brings us close to her body’s automatic reflexes, opening the veil of an indistinct inner turmoil. Yoko Ono - Cough Piece (1961)Coughing can be a bodily response to an irritating tickling feeling, troubled breathing, difficulty with speech, a sore throat or a reaction to foreign particles or microbes. In any case, coughing is a way of clearing, a freeing re-flux of air, a way out. Coughing is a form of love. 

Throughout the work we never know for sure what the artist [Yoko Ono] may be choking on, what causes irritation, or what may be forcing these urges of convulsed breaths. There is something “tickling” her throat which remains unclear, undetected, and unspoken – something she can’t get away from, a bellow, or an off-stage whose absence or formlessness resides at the very center of the recording. It occupies the mouth. Brandon LaBelle, Lexicon of the Mouth

[Yoko Ono, Cough Piece, Recorded 1963, Tokyo, Ubuweb]

Fluxus ExperienceThe works of Fluxus inscribe themselves in the logic of art for art’s sake, the experience of everyday life and designating these pieces of reality as art. This sense of reframed reality present in Fluxus could be an important reference when dealing with everyday intrusions and sound annoyances. Performances like Nivea Cream Piece (1962) by Alison Knowles, where performers are invited to rub their hands with cream in front of a microphone producing a deluge of squeezing sounds, are a testament to this attitude.

Nivea Cream Piece (1962) – for Oscar (Emmett) Williams

First performer comes on stage with a jar of Nivea cream. The performer massages hands in front of the microphone. Other performers enter one at the time. They make a mass of massaging hands and leave one at a time following the first performer.

[Alison Knowles, Nivea Cream Piece, 1962, Fluxsweet, Harvestworks, NYC, 2005]

Towards a Taxonomy of Annoyance

Our experience in hearing bodily sounds is often attached to a sense of discomfort, annoyance or even shame. The sounds of the body reminds us of its fallible and vulnerable nature, calling to mind French surgeon René Leriche’s quote that health is life lived in the silence of the organs (1936). This sense of vulnerability connected to sounds of the body has been widely explored by various practices of sound art. For instance, former Letterist Jean-Paul Curtay exalted the expression of body music in The Body Sound Art Manisfesto.

The pleasure of playing your body (…). The pleasure of matching emotion to the sounds, to the dynamic of the sounds, to the rhythms. The surprise of having the sounds triggered by fake emotions trigger sounds which trigger real emotions. Jean-Paul Curtay, 1970.

Migone - CrackersThese bodily sound triggers are often the subject matter of Christof Migone’s expeditions in sound work. In his audio work South Winds (2002), Migone presents a series of compositions made by manipulated fart sounds inspired by the performances of the French flatulist Joseph Pujol (Le Pétomane) at Moulin Rouge. Snow Storm (2002) features the sound of itching a flaky scalp — Migone scratches his head with a microphone so as to cause dandruff to fall down across his black trousers. In yet another sound work called Crackers (1998), participants were called through radio and classified ads in the weekly newspaper to record a session of bone cracking. Several participants recorded the sounds of fingers, knees, feet, shoulder, back, elbows, jaws and toes cracking. Each body movement resulting in a cracking sound was called a bone edit.  Then each edit was manipulated into a symphony of tiny bone cracks. Crackers is a sound-map of the vulnerability of our bone structure. It isn’t just the annoyance of the inner sounds that characterizes this piece but the close proximity to our decaying architecture that makes us wince.


… ahhhh… ok and now in order to do my elbows I will have to make a quick motion like this… now the jaw which is usually on this side (…) toes, of course… ok… now when I do my back I have to swing it as well… so stay in one place… the best sounds usually come out of about right there…  Christof Migonerecording transcript, Gallery 101 residency.

Migone’s sound exploration of the body and its limits has much in common with Vito Acconci‘s encounters with the body and its autonomic functions. In 1971, Acconci created four minimalist exercises called Waterways: Four Saliva Studies (22:27) consisting of a series of video works capturing Acconci spitting into his hands and sucking it back in. In this piece, Vito Acconci explores the properties of saliva by using extreme video close-ups and amplified sound to make the viewer step into the space of his body.

Vito AcconciVito Acconci

[Vito Acconci, Waterways: Four Saliva Studies, 1971]

Vito Acconci - Diary of a body 1969-1973Acconci used his own body as the main canvas for his performances, like a ready-made performative tool. About 200 of his body pieces and performances have been compiled and documented in Vito Acconci: Diary of a Body 1969-1973. Some of his works can strike notes of playfulness, like in the Following Piece (1969), where Acconci follows random people on the street. Or they can be crude and violent like in Trademarks (1970), where he would bite his legs and arms in front of a camera. Acconci pushed the limits of body art by creating new links between humor, revulsion, boredom, sexuality, and annoyance.

“How do we hear the body’s sounds, now that technology has given us superhuman ears?”

This is the question raised by Kenneth Goldsmith when curating Music Overheard (Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2007), a compilation that gathers sound works sourced from the human body. Although the advances of technology in composition gave us more than just an extension of the traditional means of making music, VA - Music Overheardtoday’s artists and musicians are still working with the squelching sounds and annoyances of their bodies. Gregory Whitehead, Matmos, Language Removal Services, John Duncan, Lauren Lesko or Mia Masakoa are a few examples of this. The AV collage artist People Like Us (Vicki Bennett) deftly navigates the winding road between bodily annoyances and audio delight. In her piece Hayfever, People Like Us presents us with cut-ups of sneezes over novelty and easy listening music. Hayfever depicts the time log of an allergic reaction. While calling to mind Ono’s Cough Piece, Hayfever is much shorter (2:36), mostly thanks to Loretadine, Bennett jokes, without whom, this track would be much longer.  

[People Like Us, Hayfever, Music Overheard, 2007 ]

Taking a cue from Hayfever, let’s experiment by thinking about Misophonia as a possible allergic reaction to specific sounds. Usually, the trigger sounds in Misophonia are connected to the mouth, eating, breathing and mechanical motions of the body. Interestingly though, this aversion is not provoked by the sounds of our own body, but by those of the other.

The origin of word allergy comes from Greek allos (other) and ergy (activity). The psychoanalyst Sami-Ali sees allergies as a symbolic symptom. Personalities who are prone to allergy are usually in relationships of extreme proximity to other people, which evokes the distress of not being able to recognize oneself as different from the other person. The allergy comes as a symptomatic crisis when facing the difficulty of separating one’s own skin from the other’s. Misophonia could also be a symbolic equivalent of that struggle for independence. Could this rejection stem from sounds that make other bodies feel satisfied, complete and differentiated — the sounds of others fulfilling needs? Ultimately, the key to understanding Misophonia may lie in unmasking trigger sounds and unearthing the neglected need to possess a body of one’s own with a unique face and its own bodily needs.

by Carlo Patrão

Misophonics Reclaim the Trigger Sounds!
Smiling Through My Teethjaap blonk damon smith -
Sounds from the office

Different versions of this installment of Zepelim were played at the free form radio station Rádio Universidade de Coimbra (RUC), the online radio art project Basic.fm and at Stress.fm as part of Ecos: Experiences in listening.


basicfmOsso - ECOS#3 - Stress.fmRuc


Radio ArtsDescription
: Freud described dreams as the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious – a pathway to the essence of wishes and desires of the human mind. This radio piece presents an intimate portrait of a group of dreamers trying to salvage information from their dreams by recalling transformative dream experiences. Also, a group of five psychotherapists share their views on dreams and how they can be helpful in the clinical practice to gain a deeper understanding of the patient. Dream debris, free association, and dream theory float through the ether of radio waves, exploring the concept of newness in dreams and the bridge between the unconscious and waking life.


In order of appearance:
Dreamers: Pierre Faa, Tiago Saga, Helena Espvall, David Monteiro and Derek Moench.

Psychotherapists: Dr. Angel MorganDr. Conceição Almeida, Dr. Clara Soares, Dr. António Pazo Pires and Dr. Miguel Estrada.

Music composed by Helena Espvall (Cello & Electronics)

Special thanks to Erica Buettner and Zed Boulé.

This radio work was a Dreamlands commission for Radio Arts (UK) funded by the Arts Council England and Kent County Council. More info at http://www.radioarts.org.uk

“Down The Royal Road” has been broadcast by Resonance FM (London, UK); Borealis Festival (Bergen, Norway), Radiophreniaa temporary art radio station broadcasting live from Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts and Wave Farm (formerly free103point9) (NYS, USA).
   Resonance FMRadiophreniawave farmBergen's 2015 Borealis Festival

Down The Royal Road 2

Radio Arts UKDown the Royal Road is a new radio piece commissioned by Radio Arts (UK) as part of a series of works for radio on the theme of “Dreamlands“. Freud described dreams as the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious – a pathway to the essence of wishes and desires of the human mind. This radio piece presents an intimate portrait of a group of dreamers trying to salvage information from their dreams by recalling transformative dream experiences. Also, a group of five psychotherapists share their views on dreams and how they can be helpful in the clinical practice to gain a deeper understanding of the patient. Dream debris, free association, and dream theory float through the ether of radio waves, exploring the concept of newness in dreams and the bridge between the unconscious and waking life.

Listen on Resonance FM, 9pm, April 15th, 2015

Here’s a small excerpt:

Duration: 00:28:00

Zepelim’s episode “Plant Consciousness and Communication” is being played at the exhibition Suite (Botanique) curated by Niekolaas Lekkerkerk, between 10–14 September, as part of the festival  Gaudeamus Muziekweek (Utrecht, The Netherlands). Suite (Botanique) also features the works: Plant Orchestra, a performance and lecture by Alexandra DuvekotYears by Bartholomäus Traubeck  an installation that translates data retrieved from growth rings of trees into piano music. Plus several resources related to plant communication, including The Forest Organ by Søren Lyngsø Knudsen and Birgitte Kristensen, Roger Roger, Molly RothDaniel Chamovitz, Mort Garson and Martin Monestier.

More information here and here.

This chart features 15 compositions that show different ways of appropriation of the balloon as an instrument.

History of Balloon Music 15

# The Wire Magazine, May 2014

Zepelim’s chart included in The Wire Magazine, issue #348 explores musical compositions made of trigger sounds for Misophonia, a chronic condition in which specific sounds provoke intense emotional experiences and autonomic responses of fight or flight within an individual. These triggers are usually comprised of subtle, repetitive sounds such as mouth sounds, lip smacking sounds, chewing sounds, body sounds and breathing sounds. This chart presents musical compositions containing Misophonic triggers, with the aim of re-contextualizing these pieces and pointing to a new way of hearing them. If you suffer from Misophonia, approach this mix with caution. Is it possible to redefine Misophonic trigger sounds as Misophonic music?

Philip Corner
Carrot Chew Performance (Tellus)
Anthony Pateras & Robin Fox 
Olfactophobia  (Editions Mego)
Henri Chopin
Le Corps Est Une Usine À Sons (Alga Marghen)
Christof Migone
Untitled (Track 4) (Locust Music)
Trevor Wishart
Anticredos, for 6 amplified vocalists  (Electronic Music Foundation)
Paul Dutton
Lips Is (OHM éditions)
Walter Cianciusi

Chewing Gum (Vitaminic)
Die Elektrischen
Crunchy Frog (Dielectric Records)
Lauren Lesko
Thrist (Ubuweb)
Monique Rollin
Étude Vocale, 1952 (INA-GRM)
Natchung (Sonic Arts Network)
Gregory Whitehead
If a Voice Like, Then What? (Staalplaat)
Gil J. Wolman
La Mémoire  (Alga Marghen)
Kenneth Gaburo
Mouth-Piece: Sextet for solo trumpet (New World Records)
Duke Ellington
Chew-Chew-Chew (Chew Your Bubble Gum) (Mosaic Records)

DownloadTracklist (pdf)

At some point in our lives, we’ve all come across the notion that music improves the growth of plants and that plants can grow stronger and healthier if we take some time out of our day to talk to them.  All of these popular notions came from experiments that took place at some point in the history of science, giving way to other fascinating experiments, stories, and myths, but above all, an impressive adventure in sound.  From Dr. Gustav Theodor Fechner‘s claims in 1848 that plants are capable of feeling  human emotions to Sir Jagadish Chandra Bos‘s study of electrical signalling in plants that supported Hindu theories of plant consciousness,  the field of scientific speculation about communication in plants became fertile ground for a cultural belief system endowing the Plantae kingdom with anthropomorphic characteristics.

The Backster Effect: If plants can communicate, what are they saying?

The Secret Life of Plants - BookIn 1973, a collection of these ideas and out-of-the-box experiments involving plants was published in the book The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.  The book covers a wide range of  topics related to plant life touching on the subjects of soil treatments, plant auras, force fields, plant communication, electromagnetism and extrasensory perception (ESP). In the chapter dedicated to Plants and ESP, the authors focus on the findings of the polygraph scientist Cleve Backster‘ (b.1924).  In 1966, Backster was an Interrogation Specialist collaborating with the CIA in lie detection when out of curiosity he decided to attach the electrodes of one of his lie detectors to the leaf of his Dracaena.  Backster intended to verify if the leaf would be affected by water poured on to its roots, and if yes, how soon. As the plant was sucking the water up its stem, the galvanometer didn’t indicate any changes.  Instead of trending upwards like Backster expected, the pen on the graph was actually trending downwards.  But it was what happened in the following minutes that changed Backster’s life and worldview.  Being a veteran examiner on polygraphs, Backster knew that the most effective way to make the galvanometer jump was by making the person taking the test feel threatened.  He decided to do the same with the plant, starting by dunking a leaf of the Dracaena in a hot cup of coffee, but with no results on the graph.  Backster started to think about what would be the worst threat to the life of a plant – the imagery of fire came up in his mind, and at that precise moment the graph made a sudden upward sweep.  Backster had made no movements toward the plant or toward the polygraph.  Could the plant have been reading his mind?

Backster's polygraph measuring the plant's electrical response to the intention of fire

Polygraph measuring the plant’s electrical response to Backster’s visualization of fire

Backster left the room and returned with some matches and found another sudden surge had registered on the chart, probably caused by his determination to carry out the fire threat on the plant.  “Plants can think!”  he thought.  This was the beginning of a new series of experiments on plant consciousness and bio-communication known as The Backster Effect or Theory of Primary Perception.

This episode of Zepelim aims to explore the fringe world of Plant Consciousness and Communication along with its peculiar relationship with music.  Below are some examples of ways that plants have been connected to compositional processes and how far the relationship with this mysterious life form can go:

1# Plant-based Generative Music

Generative music is a term used to describe music that stems from a set of rules/conditions or a system. In the book Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, David Toop refers to Eno’s gardening metaphor on Generative Music:

Generative music is like trying to create a seed, as opposed to classical composition which is like trying to engineer a tree. I think one of the changes of our consciousness of how things come into being (…) is the change from an engineering paradigm, which is to say a design paradigm, to a biological paradigm, which is an evolutionary one.

In this approach to musical composition, the  primary care for an ecosystem allows the music to develop out of an interactive natural bias – resulting in an organic quality in the composition.  Many artists who have been working in the field of natural observation, bioacoustics, or acoustic ecology saw Nature as a resource for generative data waiting to be translated into a sonic experience.  For artists following the siren of non-intentionality and the pursuit to remove one’s will from the composition process – letting the sounds “become themselves” – the “zen” quality of the Plantae kingdom can be very compelling.  Plants are an endless fountain of electrical pulses that can change according to different conditions like weather, water, light, gravity, touch or even moon cycles, producing new and unpredictable electrical responses.  Electronic devices can then translate those pulses into sound through a chain of algorithmic parameters.

Looking for a new  fabric of sound

Michael Prime - L-Fields (Sonoris, 2000)

Michael Prime is a biochemist, ecologist and electro-acoustic musician and the co-founder of the London Improv group Morphogenesis.  Prime’s sound work is concerned with establishing an interface between humans and non-human species through bioelectrical means – specifically, sounds from a variety of environmental sources which ordinarily would not be audible, such as plants or fungi.  According to Michael Prime, all living organisms produce a faint electrical field which fluctuates in consonance with the state of the organism.  By plugging plants into a bioactivity translator, it is possible to translate their biological processes and reactions to the events surrounding them into sound. Those sounds are the focus of the album L-Fields (2000), a work for hallucinogenic plants, named after the studies in voltage potential made in the 1930s and 1940s by Dr. Harold S. BurrL-Fields  presents

Michael Prime ‎– One Hour As Peyote, 2005

One Hour As Peyote, 2005

bioelectronical recordings of Cannabis sativa, Amanita muscaria and Lophophora williamsii (Peyote) blended with field recordings from the locations where the plants were growing, providing a unique listening experience  – as if Prime placed our ears into the plant leaves themselves.  It’s a very interesting take on hallucinogenic plants considering that musicians have been composing under their influence for so long and only Prime’s work reveals a translation of what these plants could sound like themselves.  In addition to using plants on records, Prime also uses them in his performances, mixing composition, improvisation and generative music – as you can see here.

Post-Minimalist Plants

Mamoru FujiedaFollowing the same line of thought, although with a different methodology, the Japanese composer Mamoru Fujieda uses plants in order to transpose data from plant activity into melodic patterns.  Fujieda wires plants using The Plantron, a bioelectric interface created by botanist Yuji DoganeConsisting of an electrode attached to plant leaves, an electric potential analyzer, a computer, and a tone generator, The Plantron analyzes the values of electrical changes measured from the leaves.  The data collected is then converted to MIDI and transformed into melodic patterns using MAX, a graphical music environment developed by Miller Puckette and other authors at IRCAM in 1986. The patterns obtained are then scored to either Eastern traditional instruments  (KotoShō: and the Hitsu) and Western instruments (Viola da gamba and Harpsichord), combining alternative tuning systems.  The result is a complex confluence of intra and inter-species languages.  These compositions are featured in the albums Patterns of Plants I and II both released on the New York City label  Tzadik.

The Sound of Plants Growing

Also, Mileece Petre has been working with generative systems like the open-source programming language SuperCollider to bring forth music from plants. Her main field of work lies in the intersection between audio and visual interactive compositions and an ecological sensibility promoting interspecies communication.  Mileece’s installation Soniferous Eden at Pacific Design Centre 2010, is one example of that specific connection.  In this installation, electrodes were placed on plant leaves to capture their GSR and EEG signals that were then processed by the software designed by Mileece with SuperCollider. The sounds triggered by the plants were intentionally designed to be ethereal and melodious – as if the plants were vibrating in an intelligent and well-tuned state of being.  When the installation’s visitors interacted with the plants, they provoked an increase of electric signals on the leaves and, as a consequence, the sounds triggered by the electric signals started to fill the room. The sounds produced were directly correlated with the stimuli received by the plants.

Mileece’s “Soniferous Eden” at See Line Gallery

Mileece noticed that not only did plants react to human touch, but they also began, over time, to react to each other in a kind of domino effect recognizable by the growing number of sound events occurring. In an interview to Pacifica Radio, Mileece recounts the episode in which she was working with chicken wire at the Soniferous Eden installation and the plants start to “freak out” producing an atypical quantity of sound.  Mileece explains how this experience may indicate a possible connection to the Backster effect, implying that the plants could have been aware of a threat to their safety.  In 2002, Mileece also released an album dedicated to plants called Formations (Lo-Recordings) a series of compositions inspired by the structures of plant growth via SuperCollider.  Also check out the work of Miya Masaoka with plants.

“On lead synthesizer, a philodendron.”

Data Garden Quartet

Last April, 2012, the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted the Data Garden: Quartet, an installation of four plants generating sound.  In principle, the process is no different from the one demonstrated by Mileece.  Sensors similar to those used in lie detector tests are attached to the plant leaves, transforming their physiological signals into data-controlled audio compositions via computer.  The plants were each assigned an instrument: a Philodendron plant on Lead synthesizer; two Schefflera plants, #1 on Rhythm Tone Generator, #2 on Bass synthesizer; and a Snake Plant on Ambience and effects – giving a music band feeling to the installation. The sound was designed to be pleasing and relaxing to the listener and to convey changes occurring within the plants in a recognizable way. During the installation, the public was encouraged to touch and interact with the plants affecting, as a result, the sound palette in the room.

While it will need to be left up to biologists, botanists, and philosophers to determine whether or not plants are “aware” of people, the Quartet apparatus gave indications that the plants are, in at least some resonant/sympathetic way, affected by the presence of humans.         Sam Cusumano, Sound & Electronics

These Quartet compositions were released in May, 2012 by the record label and online journal Data Garden in a limited Plantable 7″ edition with access to 116 minutes of plant-generated music. The album is sold on seed paper that can be planted in soil, and blue lobelias will bloom from it.

2# Music To Grow Plants By

Regarding music whose aim is to help plants grow healthier and stronger, in 1970, Dr. George Milstein presented a curious record named Music To Grow Plants featuring songs to be played for plants. The music was composed by Corelli-Jacobs and Milstein suggested that the album be played once a day for forty-five minutes to act effectively upon plant growth patterns.  In fact, the music featured on this record was meant to be a pleasant/easy listening solution to disguise high frequency tones that run under the songs.  According to an non-specified study, Milstein believed that plants exposed to high frequencies would keep their pores open longer and wider, allowing a greater exchange with the air around them.  Dr. George Milstein was a true aficionado of plants and extremely interested and knowledgeable about angiosperms of the Bromeliaceae family, the Tillandsia being his favorite of all.  He was the president of the Greater New York Chapter of the Bromeliad Society, a horticulturist, a dentist, a writer, an inventor – a truly magical person:

Dr. Milstein, who was emcee, introduced himself first, and he did a magic show based entirely on bromeliads, including the magical production of a bromeliad, a cut and restored bromeliad, a floating bromeliad, and other tricks. From The Bromeliad Society Bulletin Vol. XV March-April, 1965 nº2

Living in an apartment in New York, it can be quite a quest to grow a healthy plant, especially tropical ones due to poor conditions concerning lighting, humidity, ventilation, watering and feeding.  Making a record like Music to Grow Plants might have been the last hope of an urban man trying to deal effectively and lovingly with the care of plants belonging to other  jungles.

“Your plants and hopefully you will be brightened by the sounds of this album.”

Molly Roth - Plant Talk/Sound Advice (1976)Apparently, the year 1976 was a prolific period of musical inventions to help plants grow. The book The Secret Life of Plants published three years earlier might have sparked the curiosity of some musical minds regarding this new dimension of sound for which the plants themselves became the target audience.  Albums like Plant Music (1976, Amherst Records) by Baroque Bouquet made promises of healthy growth and mental hygiene in plants: Music to keep your plants healthy and happy. We know our music will stimulate a favorable response within your growing plants.   In the same year, another record was released to help grow plants – Plant Talk by Molly Roth. Based on the concept that your plants will grow more if you talk to them, this record intends to free you from that wearisome monologue. On side 1, Molly Roth shares her speech and empathic skills with several domestic plants (English Ivy, Fern, Spider Plant, Philodendron, Brain Cactus, Jade, etc.), while on side 2, she teaches us the art of caring for and feeding plants.Mort Garson - Mother Eatth's Plantasia

Coming with the description full, warm beautiful mood music especially composed to aid in the growing of your plants, is one of the most enchanting takes on plant music – Mort Garson‘s Mother Earth’s Plantasia (Homewood Records, 1976).  Mort Garson was a Canadian composer, arranger, orchestrator and pianist that understood the full potential of the moog early on for producing some of the most cosmic and exotic milestones of space age music.  In Plantasia, every track is dedicated to a different green friend.  The record came with a descriptive plant care booklet and was given for free with the purchase of any Simmons mattress in many furniture stores in 1976 in Southern California.

3#  Music Using Plants and Other Greenery

Robyn Schulkowsky performing Cage’s Branches for amplified cactuses and plants at the BBC Proms

Robyn Schulkowsky performing Cage’s Branches for amplified cactuses and plants (BBC Proms, 2012)

In the text An Autobiographical Statement (1989), John Cage reveals himself as a plant lover saying that one of his daily activities is to water his nearly two hundred plants.  He did this ritual before sitting down to compose and called it his activity that most closely resembled meditation.  No wonder plants have been part of his composition process, as seen in Child of Tree (Improvisation I), for percussion made of plants and /or plants used as percussion (1975) and Branches, for percussion made of plants or plants used as percussion (1976). Both compositions are in linguistic notation and indeterminate in character, playing with the subjectivity of the performer and the unpredictability of the plant material.  For instance, Child of Tree is a percussion piece for a solo performer or ensemble using ten non-pitched instruments chosen by the performer, made exclusively of plant materials (leaves from trees, branches etc). Cage specifies two of the ten instruments to be used: one or several pod rattles from the poinciana tree (found near Cuernavaca, Mexico) and an amplified cactus to be played by plucking the spines with toothstick or a needle.  Instructions were also provided to the performer on how, according to an I-Ching cast, to divide the eight-minute length of the piece into parts of the performance.  Cage intended that the performer have a low degree of influence on the outcome of this piece, freeing the process of improvisation from taste, memory and feelings:

My reason for improvising on them, is because the instruments are so unknown that as you explore, say the spines of a cactus, you’re not really dealing with your memory or your taste. You’re exploring. As you play you destroy the instrument – or change it – because when you make a spine vibrate it begins to lose its same pliability. John Cage from Electronic and Experimental Music by Thom Holmes

The sound of an unpredictable soup

The Vegetable Orchestra - OnionoiseThe plant material will have the last word in Cage’s compositions since every time the performer becomes familiar with the plant instrument, it disintegrates and needs to be replaced by an unknown one. The Vegetable Orchestra in Vienna, Austria operates from a similar basis – the components used for building instruments and sound generators are fresh vegetables as well as dried plant materials which usually only last for one concert or one day in the studio. This Orchestra founded in 1998 uses all kinds of vegetable material such as carrots, leeks, celery roots, artichokes, dried pumpkins, onion skin and also assembled vegetables to form new instruments like the Cucumberphone, the French Bean Tip Pickup, the Pumpkin Drum or the Carrot Horn.

French Bean Tip Pickup - The Vegetable Orchestra

French Bean Tip Pickup

The compositions produced by this Orchestra cover a wide range of musical styles from pieces written by classical composers like Johann Strauss to electronic music composers like Kraftwerk as well as original compositions representing standard forms of free jazz, noise, and dub. After 14 years of existence, The Vegetable Orchestra has released three records and has performed hundreds of concerts (in every encore the audience is offered a fresh vegetable soup).  Another artist working with the concept of decaying green matter is the Belgian Bob Verschueren, known for his sculptural installations using organic materials.  Since 1985, Verschueren has done numerous architectural installations and artwork in nature exclusively using plant materials.  He has been exploring not only the dimension of space but also the sonic properties of the plant matter.  These sonic compositions have been featured in the record Catalogue des plantes.

Bob Verschueren

Bob Verschueren

Each piece on the record relates to a specific species of plant that Verschueren sonically dissected and manipulated creating very specific soundscapes. Verschueren gave preference to sounds from plants and vegetable matter that are part of our daily lives like cabbages, potato peels, fallen leaves or pine needles – calling attention to their assets as artistic mediums.

4# The Radical Sound of Trees

Dr. Bernie Krause has been recording soundscapes around the globe for the last four decades, seeking to capture the remaining sounds of habitats in danger. In a broader sense, Dr. Bernie Krause has been searching for a better understanding of nature’s consciousness through the medium of sound.  He records the soundscape signatures of specific habitats, capturing natural sound patterns that he calls “nature’s symphony”, a symphony where each animal, plant, insect, rock, and river is naturally assigned to a specific place on the sound spectrum of a habitat. Dr. Krause addresses how nature’s symphonies are changing all around us: many of the sites of his early recordings are now silent.  A progressive silence is enshrouding Nature due to the ecological damage provoked by humans that the eyes can’t immediately see but, fortunately, the ears can hear.  He postulated the Acoustic Niche Hypothesis, stating that all sounds in a given environment at a given time have finite resources to compete for the spectral space. Human activity introduces new competitive elements to the environment that will act as an exclusionary force towards the sounds of the other natural lifeforms.  In order to survive,  species have to adjust their signals to minimize interference from the new sounds introduced.

If you listen to a damaged soundscape … the community [of life] has been altered, and organisms have been destroyed, lost their habitat or been left to re-establish their places in the spectrum. As a result, some voices are gone entirely, while others aggressively compete to establish a new place in the increasingly disjointed chorus. Dr. Bernie Krause

Dr. Krause recorded the soundscape of an area in Northern California before and after selective logging took place.  The spectrogram of the recordings shows the differences visually.  The spectrogram of the “before” recording is on the right.

Dr. Bernie Krause - Spectrogram "Before/After"

Dr. Bernie Krause – Spectrogram Before and After Logging

He defined a lexicon to help us understand the intricate balance of sounds around us, defining Biophony as the collection of sounds produced by all organisms at a location over a specified time; Geophony as the sounds originating from the geophysical environment, which include wind, water, thunder, movement of earth, etc; and Anthrophony is produced by stationary (e.g., air conditioning units) and moving (e.g., vehicles) human-made objects. What seems to be happening is a growing share of the anthrophony group of sounds overtaking the biophony and geophony – transforming the natural orchestra of different species into a monochromatic and dangerously apathetic symphony. Dr. Bernie Krause is a musician trained under the Western canons.  He became part of a long line of traditional folk musicians in the Greenwich Village band The Weavers, studied electronic music within the presence of minds like Stockhausen and Oliveros, and helped to popularize the moog synthesizer among pop musicians and film score composers.  During this journey, Dr. Krause alerted his readers to the observation that he could find no elements in Western music that exhibited any symbiotic qualities with or connected to the actual sound textures found in our natural environment.  The quality of our listening skills and our compulsion to put our ears to the Earth is slowly vanishing.  It was his own close attention to natural sounds that allowed him to discover new and unheard sounds, like the fascinating percussive rhythms of trees.

In this fictional radio piece, Gregory Whitehead assumes the persona of a scholar defending the theory of connectivity between music, trees, and interspecies cooperation:  The Hidden Language of Trees

Podcast DownloadTracklist (pdf)

* Various versions of this podcast were played at:

Radio Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal; 4th Edition of RadiaLx: Lisbon’s Radio Art Festival; Datscha Radio: a garden in the air , Berlin; Transhumance (YouFM), Belgium; Megapolis Audio Festival, NYC;  Fractal meat on a spongy bone, NTS, London; Basic.fm, Newcastle; Suden Radio, Radio Papesse, Berlin;

NTS Radio UK






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