Knoppers: the artists who make music from mushrooms | Electronic music

to musician Tarun Nayar, mushrooms sound tortuous and shaky. Nayar’s “organismic music” project Modern Biology has only been up and running since last summer, but his videos of mushrooms creating soothing ambient soundscapes have already racked up more than half a million TikTok followers and 25 million views.

The electronic artist and former biologist hangs out in mushroom circles and spends summers in British Columbia’s northern Gulf Islands with the Sheldrake brothers: Merlin, the author of the bestselling Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, and producer-songwriter Cosmo. So it seems only natural that he goes for mushrooms – not to eat, but to listen to.

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Nayar makes, in simple terms, “plant music”: it is made by connecting electrodes and modular synthesizers to plants and measuring their bioelectric 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 on which simple lie detectors work.” We effectively hear the changes in resistance represented as beeps and bloops, like retro-futuristic music harking back to the very early days of experimentation with synthesizers.

The first time he experimented with plants was on one of those summers out with the Sheldrakes. Nayar saw a thimbleberry plant growing outside his cabin, connected the leaves to a software synthesizer that played the piano and listened. Nayar and others like him believe that these plant sonication experiments are essential for forging deeper connections to the natural world. “When people are doom-scrolling on TikTok and a mushroom suddenly appears, that’s a moment of reconnection, even if it’s through a phone. If music and a deeper alignment can bring us here now, then there is hope.”

For North Carolina-based electronic musician Noah Kalos, aka MycoLyco, “Just finding a signal we can actually perceive helps raise awareness that fungi are all alive, we’re all part of the same.” Like Nayar, Kalos has gone viral with videos of his experiments connecting synthesizers with mushrooms to create trippy beats. “In my work I pick up signals and use them artistically. Experiencing that level of interaction definitely makes you feel more connected.”

Another person who is also experimenting with plant sounds is Joe Patitucci, the CEO of Data Garden, a “data sonication” company whose PlantWave app translates plants’ personal data into music. Using the app, he 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 reminds us that we are all part of the same system. I hope that when people make that connection, they understand that destroying the earth is destroying ourselves.”

It was this sense of environmental urgency that prompted sonic artist and biophilic systems designer Mileece to explore creating plant soundscapes more than 20 years ago. She is one of the pioneers in this field, although she refers to the 1970s book The Secret Life of Plants, which inspired a documentary, and John Lifton’s Green Music, based on the bioelectric perception of the response of plants to their physical environment. as influences in her work.

Mileece has spent tens of thousands of hours developing software and hardware to translate plant bio-emissions (ie electricity and data) into what she calls “aesthetic sonication.” She builds immersive, responsive environments that translate the interaction between plants and people into music. A 2019 installation at Tate Modern, London was a pod full of plants and flowers that responded to people entering and moving around the room. The foundation of her creations is a mission to educate communities about climate change and the threats to biodiversity – the work that stems from her early days experimenting with plants and electronics in her bedroom.

One of MycoLyco’s recent collaborators. Photo: MycoLyco

Mileece started working at a time when there was less acceptance around environmental justice or the climate crisis; obtaining funding for its projects was a long and difficult process. “I was called all kinds of bad words because I was an environmentalist. And there’s no difference between what Greta Thunberg says 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-20s, she became the resident artist at the London School of Economics, where she developed a way of converting the electrical signals from plants into the basic elements of sound design. She shows me a photo of an early experiment. On her desk is a potted plant with hair clips (she’d made her own electrodes), hooked up to a custom module and synth she coded herself, and hooked up to what’s now a vintage Mac computer.

It’s been a long journey for her, and only now is she witnessing the sudden virality of people putting synthesizers in mushrooms. “The fact that scientists and people in general are taking all this seriously has always been the point of my work, and exactly why I’ve worked so hard not to make it a gimmick,” she says.

An adorable video of a cactus appearing to sing might feel like a gimmick, but Mileece, Nayar, and others work with plants because they say there’s no comparable experience: finding that understanding of how a natural element interacts with their homemade technology. The music also has a story to tell. MycoLyco made a soundtrack for a Stella McCartney show; the designer has used mycelium – grown from mushrooms – as a leather substitute.

For Mileece, it has always been about forging connections between people and the planet. “It’s to help people remember how much better off we are if we’re integrated with the Earth so we don’t ruin it for ourselves or all the other animals, insects and birds.”

At the very least, these botanical soundscapes may bring some people closer to understanding the natural world, even if they only stumble upon a video for a few seconds. These artists have made plants sing and they are asking us to listen.

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