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Pitch perfect plants

By Jay Castello

Illustration by Sean Dean

When Stan Smeets posted a video titled “I made a synthesizer that plays plant-based music using microscopes and sensors” to a synthesizer Reddit group, the users thought it was funny that he had stumbled into a meme. “[There’s a] stereotype of synth people loving plants,” one user explained to him.

Stereotype or not, there is a growing community of people who use various sensors connected to plants and mushrooms as inspiration for synthesized music. The results range from scatterings of notes in a strange tempo to fully composed ambient music. Uploaded on Bandcamp, YouTube, and especially TikTok, they can rack up millions of views.

Different artists use the plants in different ways, but everyone I spoke to was pretty clear that the plants are not actually directly making music. The most common way that they contribute to the process is through the use of electrodes, which measure tiny fluctuations in the electrical current between different areas of the plant. That data can then be used as an element of the musical creation process; for example, by translating it into notes within a certain key.

For others, it’s more of an inspirational tool. Smeets, who moved to the microscopes because he found the electricity inputs “very invisible,” matched the leaf patterns seen with the microscopes to different tones using a digital audio workstation (DAW). “You just sit down with some plants in front of the microscope and hear what’s coming out, and start turning them a little bit… and then use it as sort of inspiration for making some real music. So there’s never really a real song coming out of the plants or the system without a person actually looping some stuff and actually fiddling with some stuff,” he says.

He also began to incorporate wider elements, like wind speed, temperature, and humidity. “So the leaf structures are ‘playing’ the notes, and then the weather sensors [are] choosing which synthesizer the plants were going to be playing.”

Tarun Nayar and his gear, surrounded by plants.
Image: Tarun Nayar

This combination of experimentation and a love of the environment is a theme in the community. All of the people I spoke to began with a general appreciation for nature, whether it was Smeets finding an unexpected green thumb as a COVID hobby or Fahmi Mursyid, an experimental artist who began getting into plant-based music via soundscape compositions. “I wanted to extend my research about [using] everyday sound,” he says. He started with incorporating recordings of an urban forest, and percussive elements made out of found objects, before eventually beginning to use sensors to get the more detailed data from plants. Some of these he uploads raw, while others are arranged into compositions.

Musician and unexpected TikTok star Tarun Nayar went through a similar process. “I started dreaming of a situation in which I could build a synthesizer that would take information from the resonant hum of the earth, from the winds and the tides, from plant bioelectricity, and turn all of that vibrational information into music,” he says. The idea started when the pandemic led him to listen to more ambient music, and he still feels like he’s in the early stages of where this is leading him. “I really consider this all as experimentation.”

The experiment has nonetheless led to success on TikTok. He started uploading under the pseudonym Modern Biology back in April and gathered a modest following at first. Then, he plugged his gear into an ink cap mushroom that happened to be fruiting outside his front door. “I did it on a whim and uploaded it.” The video now has over 25 million views. “I think I gained like 160,000 followers overnight,” Nayar says. He was traveling at the time, and didn’t have much phone signal where he was staying. “There was one bar of service at the very far end of the property, so I remember sort of logging on and being like, what is happening?” He thinks it was the mushrooms that did the trick. “Anything that I do with mushrooms [is very popular],” he says. “If I just devoted the rest of my year to doing mushrooms, I’m sure that I would end up doing a track with Tyler, the Creator or something.”

But going viral isn’t his ultimate goal; he just wants to keep experimenting with environmental music. “My fiancée and I spend a fair amount of time in mushroom season foraging for mushrooms, but it’s not the focus of my life,” he says. Instead, he’s recently started a series focused on the flowers and fruit of Hawaii, captured during a recent trip. And sharing that is still an important part of the process. “I really think of myself as connecting with nature … How cool is it that people are paying attention to mushrooms and plants? Hell yeah. I’m all about it.”

He says that one of the major questions he gets on TikTok is people asking how they might be able to do what he does. He recommends the PlantWave, whose creators he knows “fairly well.” PlantWave does something similar to what Nayar, Mursyid, and Smeets do, but takes out a lot of the technical complexity, making it accessible to more people.

Joe Patitucci, the CEO of Data Garden, the company that produces PlantWave, is a musician and artist himself. He says that PlantWave is the product of more than a decade working in the space. In 2012, Data Garden was invited to create an installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Inspired by experiments into plant consciousness, they hooked up electrodes to four plants, with an algorithm designed by Patitucci transforming these into harmonies. This is still essentially what the PlantWave does. The device connects to an app that allows the user to choose what instruments they want to hear, removing the need to understand synthesizers from the equation. (It does also connect up to DAWs and the like for more advanced users.)

Connecting to a plant.
Image: Joe Patitucci

Everyone I spoke to was open about the plants not really “playing” the music. But several of them also spoke about the connections they felt while creating with the plants nonetheless. Patitucci says that, though he still doesn’t know exactly what happened, the first time he connected to a plant, he had a strange but profound experience. “I remember hearing it, and I asked Sam [Cusumano, an engineer Patitucci worked with for some time] ‘Is that the plant?’ And he said ‘yes.’ And right when he said ‘yes,’ I had this moment of excitement, and in sync … I saw this knob turn all the way up. I was just like, ‘Whoa, wait, was that the plant? Did the plant just respond to me?’ and he was just like, ‘I don’t know, but that definitely happened, it’s in the data.’”

And at installations, these artists tend to find that viewers and listeners respond in turn to the plants and environment. At Smeets’ show, the weather made a particular impact, because when the wind would pick up, the music would start to echo. “People noticed that there was some change [in the music] when you could feel the actual change,” he says. At Patitucci’s installations, he noticed that children would act as if they were somehow charging the plants and their sounds, holding their hands up to them. “I just thought that was really cool, that there’s something intuitive in human beings that recognizes plants as beings that we share energy with.”

Because of that sense of connection, many in the plant music community are focused on experimenting with how much further they can take their inspirations. “I think this idea of using the environment in our compositions is in its infancy,” says Nayar. “I’m so excited about going more deeply in that direction, because it seems like people are open to this idea that the universe is alive and that we can listen to it in the form of music. I think people are open to that in a way that they haven’t been before.”

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