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Interacting With Plants To Create Polyphonic Music

Interacting With Plants To Create Polyphonic Music

Image courtesy of Data Garden

Record label, journal, and event producers Data Garden are always seeking to elevate traditional music distribution and find new connections between art, science, and technology. Their latest installation, Quartet, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a bio-reactive, plant-controlled work of aural art, wherein participants can create original quadrophonic compositions based on their interactions with plants. We talked with Alex Tyson, Joe Patitucci, and Sam Cusumano, the participating sound, electronic, and graphic artists behind Quartet to find out more about the installation, communicating with plants, and the future of music distribution.

The Creators Project: How did you get first get into the intersection of art, electronics, and biology?
Alex Tyson: I heard an album of plant-based music about ten years ago by Mileece named Formations. The tonalities and rhythms on that record have a fractal-like quality, spiraling and growing. Later, I found the artist site of Richard Lowenberg, who works in eco-activism, information theory, and biofeedback. Then I read The Secret Life of Plants and really enjoyed the questions raised therein. I can also attribute hearing this amazing radio event by Tom Zahuranec of a Rhododendron plant “playing” a Buchla synthesizer as a major influence for Quartet. These collaborations between artists, scientists, and plants are a solid inspiration for Data Garden as a whole.

So, you release digital albums on artwork that can grow into living plants. Can you break this down for us?
Joe Patitucci: Data Garden sells plantable albums. These are basically screen prints of album artwork on seed paper. On the back side of the album art, there is a website and a download code. You can go to the website, enter the code, and download your music. After you’ve downloaded the music to your computer, you can take your card and plant it in your backyard or in a pot where it will grow into flowers.


Photo: Inna Spivakova

The plants in the PMA installation don’t play albums so much as participants are composing music, correct? Can you walk us through that process?
Sam Cusumano: The Quartet installation utilizes active electronic sensors, similar to an EKG or lie detector, to graph subtle changes occurring within the physiology of plants. The psychogalvanometers, attached to leaves using sliver electrodes and conductive paste, sense subtle changes in electric conductance across the leaf surface. Our algorithms transform this fluctuating data stream into MIDI notes and control values. We then use these notes and controls to trigger and modify sounds that were sourced from artists and musicians. In a mechanical sense, the plants are “controlling” the sounds that guests hear in the installation—we are graphing the changes in a plant’s internal state in a way which is knowable to humans, using sound.

Sounds were curated in order to create an atmosphere which is pleasing and relaxing to the viewer. While the raw data has a sound of its own, we wanted to present sounds that are enjoyable to the listener and at the same time we wanted to employ sounds which convey changes occurring within the plants in a recognizable way.

The soundscape produced did appear to be affected by guests walking through the installation. While many interacting visitors were interested in directly touching the plants, we witnessed (and listened in on) what appeared to be dynamic changes in the sound field and data stream associated with the proximity of specific individuals to the plants.

What kind of things have you found through your research of the heritage of primitive electronic art and how have you applied them to your projects?
Alex Tyson: Many primitive electronic projects were quite limited by the technology of their respective years, thus forcing their creators to invent new production languages under physical and financial limitations. Free, accessible, and prefabricated digital tools for artists are now abundant. This access is indeed positive, but I feel that many contemporary projects have the tendency to prioritize aesthetic possibilities over objective concepts. With art-science crossover projects like the Quartet installation, we could have easily gotten carried away with too much sonic decoration. We chose to task each plant as a singular electronic performer with its own simple set of sonic rules. When combined, the four plants functioned as a living system that not only created oxygen, but also a live, variable electronic composition. By looking at pioneering artists and scientists who were making primitive media (see also: BBC Radiophonic Workshop, John Whitney Sr.) we can observe and apply important principles like restraint, functional aesthetic quality, patience/chance, and structure.

What do you see as the future of music distribution? Will the desire to own an object ever die?
Joe Patitucci: I don’t know if the desire to own an object will ever die. We’re humans and for now, we live in a physical world. It’s increasingly becoming a digital or cloud world but we’re still biological creatures. I think advances in bioelectronics over time will allow us to have a future where media doesn’t need to be stored on a piece of circuit board filled with conflict metals. There will be a time when humans will store data in biological circuitry of some kind. Then, we’ll be looking back at microchips the way we look at 19th century steam locomotives today—massive, clunky, and inefficient.


Photo: Inna Spivakova

Do you think there is more to plants than we have understood up until now? Do they respond to interaction? Do they communicate with other species? I saw on your website the video of the woman teaching her cacti the Japanese alphabet. Do you think there is a future where we can talk to our plants?
Sam Cusumano: Humans are physically active extended bodies of salty water. As we move, metabolize, and emote we push forth a wake of electromagnetic flux. Plants as well are extended bodies of salty water, but are far less active. The specific succulent tropical plants utilized in this installation appear to be picking up on these electromagnetic vibrations, like radio antennae tuning in a distant station. The sensors attached to the plants then were able to graph these waves, resonating in the gelatinous structures of the plants.

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.

A frequently asked question at the Museum was, “Are the plants able to hear the music they are playing?” In short, I would say no. While plants are sensitive to vibrations, most sounds within the range of human hearing occur at frequencies which will have very little affect on plant physiology. Mammals don’t, for instance, hear sounds through their skin, instead relying on dedicated sensitive structures—our ears. Mamals have developed ears which are sensitive to micro vibrations and pressure waves in the air. Plants, on the other hand, do not appear to have evolved organs which sense short term vibrations in air pressure (sound). Rather plants have developed elaborate and highly sensitve structures with which to interface with light. I would like to put forth the notion that the plants are more likely able to “see” people as they approach and pass by, and it is these vibrational artifacts which we are able to detect through our installation.


Photo: Inna Spivakova

Data Garden QUARTET was produced by:
Sam Cusumano, sound & electronics
Joe Patitucci, sound & sound design
Dino Lionetti, sound
Alex Tyson, sound & graphics
Jessica Hans, ceramics