JFor musician Tarun Nayar, mushrooms sound wavy and wobbly. Nayar’s ‘organismic music’ project Modern Biology has only been active since last summer, but with his videos of mushrooms creating soothing ambient soundscapes, he’s already racked up more than half a million. TikTok Followers and 25m of views.
The electronic artist and former biologist hangs out in mushroom circles, spending summers in British Columbia’s northern Gulf Islands with the Sheldrake brothers: Merlin, the author of bestselling Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds , Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, and producer-songwriter Cosmo. So it seems natural that he starts looking for mushrooms – not to eat, but to listen.
Nayar makes, in simple terms, “plant music”: it is created by connecting electrodes and modular synthesizers to plants and measuring their bioelectrical energy, which then triggers note changes in the synthesizer. He describes the process as “an environmental feedback mechanism. It is based on galvanic resistance – the same principle by which simple lie detectors work. We do hear the resistance changes represented by beeps and bloops, like retro-futuristic music reminiscent of the very early days of experimenting with synthesizers.
The first time he experimented with plants was one of those summers with the Sheldrakes. Nayar saw a blueberry plant growing outside his cabin, connected the leaves to a software synthesizer playing the piano, and listened. Nayar and others like him believe these plant sonification experiences are key to forging deeper connections with the natural world. “When people are scrolling through TikTok and all of a sudden a little mushroom pops up, it’s a moment of reconnection, even if it’s through a phone. If music and deeper listening can get us here right now , then there is hope.
For North Carolina-based electronic musician Noah Kalos, aka MycoLyco, “just being able to find a signal that we can actually observe helps raise awareness that fungi are all alive, we’re all part of the same thing. “. Like Nayar, Kalos went viral with videos of his experiences connect synthesizers to mushrooms to create trippy beats. “In my work, I pick up signals and use them artistically. Experiencing this level of interaction definitely helps you feel more connected.
Joe Patitucci, CEO of Data garden, a “data sonification” company whose PlantWave app translates plant biodata into music. Aided by the app, he has just released a record of cannabis plants, aptly named 420. “The value of listening to plants is really being super present in the moment with nature,” says Patitucci. . “It’s a reminder that we’re all part of this same system. I hope that when people make this connection, they will understand that to destroy the Earth is to destroy ourselves.
It was this sense of environmental urgency that motivated the sound artist and “biophilic systems designer” Mileece to explore the creation of soundscapes from plants over 20 years ago. She is one of the pioneers in this field, although she cites the 1970s book The Secret Life of Plants which inspired a documentary film, and John Lifton’s Green Music, based on bioelectrical sensing of plant response to their physical environment, as influences in his work.
Mileece has spent tens of thousands of hours developing software and hardware to translate bioemissions (i.e. electricity and data) from plants into what she calls “aesthetic sonification.” She builds immersive and responsive environments that translate the interaction between plants and humans into music. A 2019 installation at the Tate Modern, London was a pod full of plants and flowers that reacted to people entering and moving around the room. At the root of his creations is a mission to educate communities about climate change and threats to biodiversity – the work stemming from his early experiments with plants and electronics in his bedroom.
Mileece began working at a time when environmental justice or the climate crisis was less accepted; obtaining funding for his projects was a long and difficult process. “I’ve been called all kinds of bad words for being an environmentalist. And there’s no difference between what Greta Thunberg said and what I said, but everyone hated me for it.
As a teenager, Mileece learned to code and trained as a sound engineer. In her mid-twenties, she became artist-in-residence at the London School of Economics, where she developed a way to transcribe electrical signals from plants into the basic elements of sound design. She shows me a photo of a first experience. On her desk is a potted plant with hair clips attached (she had made her own electrodes), connected to a custom module and synth she had coded herself, and hooked up to what is now a vintage Mac computer.
It’s been a long journey for her, and only now is she witnessing the sudden virality of people plugging synthesizers into mushrooms. “Having scientists and people in general finally take all of this seriously has always been the goal of my work, and that’s precisely why I worked so hard to make sure this wasn’t a gimmick,” he says. she.
A cute video of a singing cactus might sound like a gimmick, but Mileece, Nayar and others work with plants because they say there’s no experience like this: finding that understanding of how a natural element interacts with their in-house technology. Music also has a story to tell. MycoLyco composed the soundtrack for a show by Stella McCartney; the designer used mycelium – grown from mushrooms – as a substitute for leather.
For Mileece, it has always been about connecting people and the planet. “It’s to help people remember how much better off we are when we’re integrated into the Earth, so that we don’t ruin it for ourselves or any other animals, insects and birds.”
At the very least, these botanical soundscapes might bring some people closer to understanding the natural world, even if they stumble upon a video for just a few seconds. These artists made the plants sing, and they ask us to listen.