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?
In 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 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 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. Burr. L-Fields presents
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.
Following 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 Dogane. Consisting 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 (Koto, Shō: 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 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.”
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.”
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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
* 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;