Imagine musical trees made of vinyl, year-rings functioning as grooves of audio information. Record labels would go out into the black woods and harvest tall black stalks of acetate, hauling these trees back—CD-R leaves and vines of magnetic tape dragging in the dirt—to shave off cross sections and punch holes in the middle. The first shaving is a test pressing. It’s given a listen and judged. Some are beautiful, and it’s obvious at first listen that nature has grown important, lasting music. They’re then sent to a mill, where the trees are sliced to specifications, packaged, and shipped to record stores.
OK, now flip the situation; instead of changing the trees, change the record player. This is what Bartholomäus Traubeck did with his “Years” project: he made a record player that plays cross-sections of trees, analyzing their year rings and reproducing/interpreting the information as gorgeous piano music. The idea is simple and poetic; the process, not so much. Our sister site, Motherboard, talked to Bart earlier this week.
Motherboard: Do different kinds of trees make different music?
Bartholomäus Traubeck: Up to a certain extent they do. Since a lot is predefined by the rules of my [computer] program and the technical setup, there is only space for the interpretation of my machine by the tree’s structure. It is more like a machine to output generative music on the base of a tree’s year rings than an actual sonification of the matter itself as titled by many blogs I saw my work in.
But in terms of piano-music: yes every tree produces a different composition. Sometimes it’s more obvious, sometimes it’s not. The effect can be examined best by comparing different types of trees, for example fir trees sound a lot more minimalistic and have a very abstract rhythm compared to an ash tree which is more full sounding and rhythmic and loud.
Can you explain the process a bit more? What’s the analytic mechanism, and how is it mapped to a musical scale?
OK, unfortunately this is not that easy. I should’ve built a simpler machine I guess. The tonearm is equipped with a modified [PlayStation] Eye camera which streams an almost microscopical closeup image of the wooden disc to the computer. There the image is analyzed in a node basing programming platform called vvvv. I examine the image for (obviously) year-rings and if one is detected, it is analyzed for its thickness, darkness and growth factor.
These parameters determine the rhythm, the tone strength, tone length as well as the pitch and also of how many single tones an ‘event’ is composed of. Since there is no groove to drag a needle all the way to the center, there is a small stepper motor mounted under the tonearm. It is driven by an Arduino microcontroller which is also in charge of handling all the other ‘physical’ inputs like switching the thing on and off.
As the tonearm makes its way to the center, the year-rings usually grow closer together and the signal is more differentiated. The signal itself, in order to produce an output is, after being analyzed and reshaped, mapped onto a scale of piano keys. This scale is defined by the overall appearance of the wood. It can happen that some wood plays in a whole tone scale, and another plays in a regular C-minor or C-major. These tones are then sent to an ordinary digital piano software via MIDI…
Read the rest of the interview on Motherboard.