In his 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” the late author Richard Brautigan, a mascot of ’60s counterculture, longed for “a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony.” His words reflected a popular sentiment of his generation, who pollinated a field of musical experimentation with technology of the late 20th century, such as modular synthesizers and tape loops, and drew inspiration from the natural world. Many artists saw nature and the electronic as coexistent—even as having a symbiotic relationship.
The music they made was often inspired by, and sometimes created specifically for, plants. Canadian composer and electronic music pioneer Mort Garson’s beloved 1976 album Mother Earth’s Plantasia used the sweet, buoyant sound of a modular Moog synthesizer to make, according to the record’s subtitle, “warm earth music for plants … and the people that love them.” Elsewhere, in projects such as Hiroshi Yoshimura’s crystalline ambient album Green (1986) and Richard Lowenberg’s bio-sensing artworks—including one that translated bioelectric information from plants into a trippy video and live music score, and was featured in the video performance “The Secret Life of Plants” (1976), completed while Lowenberg was an artist-in-residence at NASA—artists explored new aural territory with foliage-focused songs.
Today, the community working at the intersection of plants and music continues to grow. Joe Patitucci and Alex Tyson, co-founders of the data-sonification system design company Data Garden, recently opened up the field to non-musicians by creating a device called PlantWave, which allows anyone to easily generate songs from greenery—no audio-engineering skills required. (More advanced users can, however, connect PlantWave with synthesizers or digital audio workstations.) It’s a project more than a decade in the making: Data Garden began in 2011 as a zero-waste record label that released music digitally via download codes on plantable pieces of paper embedded with flower seeds, a nod toward a similar initiative by Brautigan called “Please Plant This Book.” It also produced interactive exhibitions that considered the relationships between plants, music, and technology, such as a 2012 show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the co-founders connected electrodes to plants and used an algorithm designed by Patitucci to transform them into melodic sounds.
Patitucci and Tyson collaborated with engineer Sam Cusumano to further adapt that technology and, in 2019, applied it to PlantWave, a palm-size block that senses electrical variations in a plant or fungus using two electrodes, which users place onto the organism’s surface. (The electrical current’s speed varies depending on how much water the plant is holding between the pair of nodes.) The variations are graphed as a sound wave, which is then translated into pitch messages that are played by PlantWave as notes from instruments including a flute, guitar, and harp; an app lets users select which instruments they want to hear. Other characteristics of the wave, such as a change in the speed of the current, automatically alter the texture of music through its tempo and intensity. Think of the levels of the plant-generated electrical currents as notes, and the changes of that current as fader knobs.
Patitucci engineered the device to put the data into a pentatonic scale; as such, the notes can be played in any arrangement and still sound harmonious. With only five notes—and with plants being relatively chill, so to speak—there isn’t much variation. But patience rewards. Like one’s eyes adjusting to the dark, the ear begins to hear the subtle variations as the plant music plays on. A mushroom in the Kealia Forest Reserve, for instance, initially sounds like a monotonous ringing note. After a few minutes, layers of rich, subtly undulating hums can be felt in the body. Applied to a basil plant, the device generates soft, repetitive flutes interspersed with the excitingly sporadic pull of a resinous bow across a cello string.
Each plant has its own organic pulsations (as forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard suggests on Ep. 114 of our At a Distance podcast), and to hear them, one must remain open to perceiving them. PlantWave encourages active listening as a form of meditation, quieting the chatter of the mind to make space for a different language.
Though nearly six years have gone by since Leonard Cohen’s passing, the long shadow cast by his legacy as one of the 20tSuzanne,” to the high drama of “Hallelujah,” to the chilling minimalist and gospel juxtaposition of his swansong “You Want it Darker,” Cohen managed to constantly reinvent himself, leaving behind the rare achievement of a musical body of work whose mos
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Music put out by artists from the Nordic region—an emerging hotbed for progressive musicians such as the prolific singer
Holger Schulze runs the Sound Studies Lab at the University of Copenhagen, where scholars and artists gather to explore
Call it “free jazz,” “avant-garde,” or “the new thing.” Just don’t call it predictable. Founded in Chicago in 1965 and sAssociation for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) has long been an emblem of experimental, improvised jazz. As author Paul Steinbeck describes in his new book, Sound Experiments: The Music of the AACM (University of Chicago Press), this collective came together to play and promote fearlessly original, spontaneous music
Over the past year or so, to state the obvious, there’s been an explosion of artists and musicians wading into web3. NFTarena rockers to humble instrumentalists taking a crack at the NFT game, there’s been plenty of discussion about whether these tokens are just another tool for Bandcamp’s more patronage-oriented streaming model—for musicians to retain greater profits from the sales of their work.
At first glance, the term “deaf sound artist” might seem an oxymoron. The Berlin-based, Korean-American artist ChristineFace Opera II,” for example, features an all-deaf cast but no signing, upending the expectations of hearing viewers. For her recent pCaptioning the City,” Kim installed large-scale descriptions of various noises across Manchester, England, urging viewers to reconsider how
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“African Americans have played a major role in creating the foundation for what we know as American food,” food anthropoDebra Freeman says on the trailer for Setting the Table, the podcast she hosts. “From soul food to barbecue and almost everything in between, African American cuisine has esse
Few musical genres capture the dizzying creative potential and sobering commercial realities of today’s moment quite likthe ever-bloating corpse of lo-fi beats playlists, or the number of times the word hyperpop entered a conversation in 2020), and federal disinterest in funding young musicians in any category beyond classical, o
On any visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a certain sense of abundance weighs. Works by Rothko, Calder, andRashid Johnson rest only a quick walk from rooms stuffed with the shadowy canvases of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, which spill into sun-sa lot to take in. And while trying to process this aesthetic overstimulation, one can be forgiven for looking past the many mImmaterial podcast. Hosted by writer and poet Camille T. Dungy, Immaterial takes up a different art material as the subject of itfirst episode alone, about paper, everything from comic books, to Gilded Age belly-dancing celebrities, to bespoke Valentine’s Day ca
For Brian Sweeny, the line between performance and religious experience is ambiguous to say the least. Starting in 2016,Ambient Church, he began renting churches for musicians to perform their interpretations of meditative, devotional, and minimal music,Body Actualized Center—a storefront he and his friends transformed, using found and Craigslist-sourced materials, into a yoga studio that morphed into a venue for events including raves,Along with the acoustic benefits and aesthetic backdrops that churches provide, what do they bring to the performances ySome music is really delicate, especially when performed indoors, and needs complete quiet to be enjoyed—no clinking of What draws you to ambient music? I tend to think of ambient as more of an adjective, describing a sound or approach to musical creation rather than a genre. I love all music, and fourth world.” Acts like Salamanda from Seoul, YAI from Brooklyn, and Carmen Villain from Oslo come to mind. You call these performances “community experiences,” and never “concerts.” What makes you draw this distinction? The concert is a cultural construct that Ambient Church certainly overlaps with, in that we feature amplified and unimagEric Epstein, who has been blowing audiences away with his visual artistry since the beginning of the project. How has your approach to Ambient Church shifted over time? The vision has changed mostly in terms of its inclusivity. In the early stages, the audience I was trying to attract was
A composer, saxophonist, and flutist on the cutting edge of jazz since the ’70s, Henry Threadgill became one of only three jazz musicians to have received a Pulitzer Prize in 2016, for the radical stylings of his mastZooid. Meanwhile, artist McArthur Binion, having honed his craft of painting and drawing deceptively complex, minimalist patterns over several decades, rocketedModern Ancient Brown Foundation in Detroit, where he earned his B.F.A. at Wayne State University (and later, earned his M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy oAir). “Back then, the city was very small, so everybody knew each other,” Binion says. “It was an amazing time.” Binion refat the same place [in our careers],” Binion says. To mark the occasion, he commissioned Threadgill to compose and conduct Brown Black X, which will be performed at the Detroit Orchestra Hall on June 24. The work will honor their abiding friendship as well as the Modern Ancient Brown Foundation and the elder Bfree, ticketed performance, Threadgill will bring together Zooid and several Detroit-based musicians to play his new score. Last week, Threadgill Ulysses, and the pace of the human heart have all been guiding influences in Threadgill’s previous compositions. This time, looking to Binion’s work for inspiration, Threadgill points to the wa“DNA” series, for example, in which paintings that appear from afar as simple, geometric patterns up close reveal themselves to be i
How can we develop a deeper, more human and multifaceted understanding of the past? Economist Rob Johnson (who was the guest on Ep. 22 of our At a Distance podcast) knows all too well that studying data offers some answers—but that it doesn't represent the full picture. “Analysis ofInstitute for New Economic Thinking, an interdisciplinary collective of economists and thinkers who develop inventive methods to better serve communities aEconomics & Beyond, which draws on his extensive knowledge of everything from the climate crisis to the impact of music on public policy. a heartfelt playlist for us that represents what Detroit means to him. “Detroit has been the seedbed of creation for so many songs,” he saysListen to Johnson’s Detroit “In Our Hearts” playlist on Spotify.
By its name alone, the podcast Crypto Island stands to entice just as many people as it’s likely to turn off. Don’t be fooled, though. The series isn’t some well-tr
A disembodied rubber tongue juts from a brass contraption upon a wall that links it with motors, tubes, and metal. ArtifWeird Sensation Feels Good: The World of A.S.M.R.” (through October 16), a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum.
Live music performances, with their visceral, multisensorial energy, can be a form of sonic regeneration and discovery. Hiya Live Sessions, a multicity program of concerts and club nights, draws on this reality by focusing on experimental works by female art
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What does healing look like, and in what ways does the American carceral system obstruct it? How can we care for each otThe Transformations Suite, a 2016 project that combined music, theater, and poetry to examine the history of resistance within communities of theBlack Spring, a 2020 collection of songs that took inspiration from ’60s protest music to address the current cultural and political
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Oceans are among the most sound-rich environments on the planet—but because the water’s surface keeps most noises from pEp. 127 of our At a Distance podcast.)
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Kevin Beasley’s First Live Outdoor Performance Examines the Everyday Cacophony of a New York City Intersection
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Hearing impairment can affect people at any age, especially musicians and fans who are regularly exposed to high-volume Crystal Guardian, aims to prevent.
“Kendrick Lamar is my favorite rapper of the modern era,” says veteran pop-culture critic and fiction writer Miles MarshDAMN., Lewis began talking about the songwriter and record producer with his agents and editor, and eventually set about unpaPromise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar (St. Martin’s Press), out next month, eloquently considers and contextualizes Lamar’s work, life, and lyrics through the
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The greater our technological advances, the smaller our devices—or so it seems, at least, in the case of speakers. In thLumisonic, a wireless ceiling-mounted apparatus that combines superior audio with a dimmable LED light source for a singular atmo
The Ironic speaker, produced by the Brooklyn studio Oswalds Mill Audio (OMA), looks more like an abstract sculpture than a potent delivere
Spend a few hours with the Sounds of the Forest open-source library of woodland-area recordings, and you’ll be sure to see the forest for the trees. From the Alps to tEp. 114 of our At a Distance podcast), and one of our most spiritually beloved. Be they tropical or temperate, these dense ecosystems function as the world’
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Brooklyn-based model, artist, and activist Chella Man received his first hearing aids when he was 4 years old. Eight yeajewelry collection that Man released earlier this year in collaboration with the New York fashion label Private Policy. Together with desishort film that featured himself, alongside model Rayly Aquino and dancer Raven Sutton (who are both also deaf), wearing the jewel
In West Africa, legendary tales have been passed down for centuries by griots, storytellers who are also poets, historians, genealogists, and musicians. A deeply respected speaker, the griot is tasked with memorizing and retelling—sometimes with the addition of new details that relate to the lives of a modern
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Wizened cork oak trees carpet the gently swelling highlands of Portugal’s Alentejo region, where Cédric Etienne, co-founStudio Corkinho, is transforming a cork farm into an alternative healing retreat that will open in 2024 under the Slow hospitality bann
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Morning prayer. Children playing. Cooking dinner. Singing a lullaby. The quotidian sounds that form our everyday experiemahallas—tight-knit, multi-generational living quarters that feature shared amenities including kitchens and gardens—that are beMahalla: Urban Rural Living,” the pavilion of the Republic of Uzbekistan at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, open today through November 21.
Late last year, park benches in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens—each with a clear view looking west—were stamped with smThe End of the Day, a meditative public audio experience created by artist April Soetarman. Her voice gently guides listeners through a 10
Every music fan knows the roster of iconic artists who died young, particularly those who passed around age 27, and gain
The fallout from the climate crisis gives us plenty to fear: habitat destruction, extreme weather, and—in case you slept through the last year—global pandemics. But clinical psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon, foundeEp. 51 of our At a Distance podcast), believes that fear and other intense emotions are some of our best tools for pursuing meaningful climate action. “PasClimate Emotions Conversations, a digital forum for people to express their emotions out loud.
Early American colonists mistook cicadas, compact insects with dark exoskeletons, glistening red eyes, and big wings, fo
Creating immersive environments that tell stories using music is second nature to London-based sound artist Peter Adjaye. He’s used his skills as a DJ-producer, musicologist, and composer to collaborate on a wide range of interdisciplinary Dialogues, which explores the connection between music and architecture.
Numero Group is that rare music label with levels of passion, curiosity, and risk-taking equivalent to the artists it represents. Fr
Last week, the emerging Los Angeles folk duo Junaco released its latest single, “Weight of the World,” which they wrote after listening to Ep. 20 of our Time Sensitive podcast featuring fashion designer Jesse Kamm. (Pakistani singer Shahana Jaffer, who started the band three years ago with drumBlue Room, in June.
In colloquial Levantine Arabic, عفكرة roughly translates to “on second thought” or “come to think of it.” Pronounced afikra, the term is a fitting name for the grassroots movement social entrepreneur Mikey Muhanna founded in 2014, dedicated to cultivating curiosity about Arab history and culture. U
“Studies have shown that listening to the sound of beavers enthusiastically munching on white cabbage can temporarily retweeted last fall. (The account is maintained by the family of the late children’s book author, who wrote the story that inspired the criBabe). The post, accompanied by a video of a rodent enjoying a cabbage buffet, went viral and was clearly untrue—but nodded
The sounds of Legos poured out of a toybox, dropping to the floor, and clicking together are recognized all over the wor“White Noise” playlist. Made using only the sounds of Lego bricks and pieces, “White Noise” is a score of seven tracks made to produce calming
More than two decades in the making, the National Museum of African American Music opened last month in Nashville, Tennessee, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Through its seven galleries and the some 1,50
Dominated by companies such as Sony, Sennheiser, and Bose, which leverage technology to make ever-smaller components, thestimated $28.5 billion by the end of this year. On the flip side, there are proudly D.I.Y. audio designers like Devon Turnbull, who with his brand Ojas creates high-end sound systems from his basement and a studio near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By hand-building speakers th
It’s been a tough year for musicians and DJs, as the pandemic continues to make traditional revenue streams for performiYoung Turks (which counts FKA twigs, Sampha, and The xx among the musicians on its roster), the absence of in-person performances ia playlist of uplifting songs for us that have “amplified the best parts of my year,” he says, “and distracted me from some of the worst.” There’s so
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Nestled in northwest Montana’s Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park comprises 1,583 square miles of scenic wilderness—
When Teenage Engineering released its OP-1 portable synthesizer, in 2011, the device received glowing reviews from an arOB-4, a Bluetooth speaker system that it’s billing as a “magic radio.” The term isn’t too far off: The mobile, four-speaker
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The middle of a pandemic may seem like an odd time to launch a podcast about road trips—but maybe it’s ideal, as unexpecGreetings from Somewhere, a show about how travel affects us; how we affect the places we visit; and, to date, how the pandemic changed everythi
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Elliott H. Powell Traces the History of Black Musicians Engaging with South Asian Culture and Sounds
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Don’t be fooled by the no-frills appearance of this device—it’s actually something of a shape-shifter. Created by the ItCity Radio (available in the U.S. through Uncommon Goods) lets users pick from 18 international radio libraries with a few flicks of the finger: Simply download the gadget’s ap
Keith Abrahamsson is the founder of the independent record label Mexican Summer, which operates out of New York and London and counts the likes of Cate Le Bon, Ariel Pink, and Photay among the artistEp. 3 of our Time Sensitive podcast.) Launched in 2008, his venture has grown to include a reissue label, Anthology, and a book publishing arm, Anthology Editions. In an effort to soothe anxious, isolated souls, Abrahamsson put together a playlist of transporting tunes for us. “It’s culled from material both in and outside my orbit—songs I work with directly or have connected to as a co “Love Is A Jungle,” Peter Ivers “For Lise,” Matchess “Rectifiya,” keiyaA “Stay Sane,” Pink Siifu “Charlotte's Thong,” Connan Mockasin “Infinitamente Nu,” Sessa “Min
An international pandemic may seem like an unusual time to kick-start a podcast called The Art of Travel. But for Olivia Lopez, a Filipina fashion blogger whose pre-Covid life entailed constant globetrotting, being stuck at the first episode of the podcast, which she launched over the summer. Through the project, Lopez hopes to provide a “temporary escape for listeners, whiYOLO magazine founder Yolanda Edwards, who talks about an unforgettable trip to Greece; Life House Hotels founder Rami Zeidan, who discusses how to make travel more meaningful; and perfumer Frédéric Malle, who explains how to travel via the senses. The conversations have been a balm for Lopez, who, like all of us, has been missing the excitement of everyday life. “
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