Thursday, February 23, 2017

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

“A rose is the visible result of an infinitude of complicated goings on in the bosom of the earth and in the air above, and similarly a work of art is the product of strange activities in the human mind.”
-Clive Bell
Sempervivum; From: 
Like all critics, Mr. Bell dedicated his life to sussing out what exactly defines art, only to never really reach a concrete answer. For that reason, I’m not going to try and tackle such a daunting topic in the short time I have. However, I do think it is fair to say that most of the truly captivating art (if not all of it) lies at some nexus of seemingly unrelated fields. Some intersections seem so niche that one would think that creativity is being forced, but circumstance gives rise to some truly unique ideas.

In their unorthodox pieces, experimental artists leave the masses guessing at genius, and while that may be the case at times, it is more often the spill-over from everyday life that influences art; music being no exception. There are swathes of exciting musical genres inspired by seemingly mundane themes. 

For example, techno - the soulful, yet stoic, genre responsible for sparking the modern dance scene - is the result of bored, talented black Detroit youth trying to make sense of the downtrodden city's web of empty streets and abandoned assembly plants. Within these genres an infinite level of special interest subgenres exists. One topic that musicians seem to have always been interested in is nature, and more specifically plants. It may sound weirdly specific, but the amount of plant-centric music out there is alarming. And hey, if Laurie Anderson can write Music for Dogs, why can’t we have music for plants? 

Mort Garson's Plantasia; Music For Plants and the People Who Love Them

The intersection of plants and music has been taken to a new level recently with the advent of plant-based synthesizers. Musicians, scientists, and/or hobbyists alike have taken advantage of the affordability and amazing prototyping abilities of Arduino hardware to turn common houseplants into tools of sonic warfare. 

This idea isn’t necessarily new, as plant biologists have used the capacitance inherent to a leaf to create a basic touch sensor before. However, Leslie Garcia's Pulsu(m) Plantae project has moved far beyond touch sensors. Using Arduino technology, Garcia is capable of whisking up an armada of sensors at an affordable rate. These sensors, such as photodetectors, barometers, pressure detectors, measure biofeedback within the plant. The Arduino instruments used measure physiological information and, through an open source Arduino program, the data is converted into a format usable by an audio engine such as PureData or MaxMSP. In essence, this gives the plant a prosthetic voice. 

In this video, one can see how the process unfolds. The plant behaves as a signal transducer and different stimuli result in different biofeedback loops, which, in turn, results in a variety of unique sounds. Perhaps the most striking example is the dramatic change in timbre when the lamp (aimed toward the Sempervivum) is turned on. What we are hearing is a sonic manifestation of the plant's internal communication response to light. Prior to activation, a steady four-note arpeggiation persists. Once the light is activated, the rate parameter of the arpeggiator is altered, increasing from steady eighth notes, to what are at least 1/32 notes. This is likely governed by a binary operator, where this parameter is automated by the presence or absence of light; something like "if light ON, then increase arp_rate to 1/32".

A short documentary showing the work going into the Pulsu(m) Plantae project.

Full details of the Pulsu(m) Plantae project can be explored here, it really is worth diving into.

One might wonder what the impetus behind such experimentation is. The answer is that there really doesn't need to be one. Though if someone is curious what applications a project like this might have, there are a few that come to mind. An important biological application of the project is the ability to translate data into a readily understandable medium. Raw data can be difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of at times, and this project proposes a way to process it. We use graphical representations of data for interpretation, so why not acoustic representations? There have been countless situations where a graph was ineffective at communicating its message, but it was used to represent the data anyway since no other, more useful format was available.

More interestingly, this project shows promise in the field of ambient music. Albeit gimmicky, a setup like this has connotations romantic enough to provoke interest. In addition, the cost is nominal. Artists are constantly seeking new sounds while on a budget and if one can find a granular synthesizer such as this at such a comparably low price, the utility could be huge, especially with the meteoric rise of the DIY electronics scene.

What makes this setup unique - aside from the obvious - is its ability to switch out components, yielding an infinite library of potential sounds. Maybe one day you're feeling in a Dianthus kind of funk, and the next, you're finding yourself sympathizing with the humble Geranium. Just switch out the plants and you'll likely discover that individual varieties produce unique sounds. It sounds silly, but who knows? Maybe at the next dingy basement show you visit, some dude will be jamming on a modular Chrysanthemum.



  1. This is something I really never heard of. From a personal experience connection, music for humans has been studied over the past years for better concentration or improving moods. Personally, I enjoy listening to classical music when I need to focus on a task, but I never heard of studies being done on animals or in this case, plants! On the science scale, I am curious to how they can rule out any extraneous factors to contribute to anything they see in the plant growth/development. How can they be so sure that the plants are being impacted by this newly created music. Anyways, it'll be very interesting to how this study continues and perhaps becomes a widely researched topic!

    Posted by Andrew Do (group A)

    1. Hi Andrew,

      The study is not investigating the effect of music on a plant’s growth/development. It focuses on using modular Arduino hardware in order to take stimuli that the plant receives and then transduce the resulting biofeedback into sound via an audio engine. Nothing about the plant is being altered by the instruments used to measure stimuli that the plant experiences anyway, such as light, ambient noise, touch, etc. The plants are not impacted by the sound, they are creating it.

      -Owen M.

  2. I remember for a science fair project in middle school one of my friends did the effect of music on plant growth. Although I do not remember his personal results, I find it interesting that there is a study delving deeper into music's effect on plant growth. It is quite a peculiar idea. I remember learning that people would talk to their plants to help them grow because you are releasing CO2 which plants thrive on. It would be interesting to see how a singing person would effect a plants growth! Music does seem to have powerful abilities in changing a person's mood, I guess music's power may apply to plants to!

    Posted by Leah DeLorenzo

    1. Hi Leah,

      This study does not measure the effect of music on plant growth. It’s clear that you did not read the article. Like I said in my response to Andrew, the study seeks to transduce the various ambient stimuli that a plant experiences into sound. This is achieved through processing the data - obtained from Arduino hardware instruments - through an audio engine, in this case PureData, via a series of scripts. Again, how music effects the plant is not being studied, the plant is being used to create music.

      -Owen M.