Astrology, Ecology, Non-Musicology
Plan(e)t MusicPlant music is a genre that explicitly composes or performs with plants. Two subgenres of plant music have existed since the mid-20th century, which we differentiate as organic and synthetic plant music. Organic plant music was first explored by John Cage, while synthetic plant music originated within the ecovillage of Damanhur. Both organic and synthetic plant music originated from desires to heal imbalanced relationships between humans and environments. However, synthetic plant music has recently become the mainstream genre of plant music, further marginalizing organic plant music and separating the genre from its ecological and spiritual sources. This essay provides a historical overview of plant music alongside contemporary examples of the two subgenres: PlantWave as an example of mainstream synthetic plant music and Zizia as an example of underground organic plant music. We encourage musicians to embrace the environmentally conscious roots of plant music as a method of ecologically restorative planet music.
Local ecosystems once provided all the materials needed to make musical instruments, thus music was an interaction between organisms and their environments. Artists in the 20th century sought to make the connections between plants and musical instruments apparent. John Cage composed Child of Tree (1975) and Branches (1976) for amplified plant materials. These primary works of organic plant music were furthered by the animist orchestra, formed by Jeph Jerman in 1999, which performed entirely with unamplified natural objects, including plants. Also in 1976, the spiritual community and ecovillage Damanhur began to create an electronic “music of the plants” by attaching living plants to sensors that transmitted low-voltage electrical currents from the plants to synthesizers, beginning the subgenre of synthetic plant music. Contemporary plant musicians have continued working within these two subgenres, focusing either on natural sounds generated by the physical bodies of plants, or on artificial sounds produced by synthesizers controlled by biofeedback from plants.
Synthetic plant music has grown in popularity in recent years due largely to PlantWave (née MIDI-sprout), a device that makes the technology used by Damanhur more readily available to musicians. PlantWave is a controller for synthesizers that generate sounds independent from the physical body of the plant. PlantWave is a commercial product that produces music by taking the life force of plants, quantified in biofeedback, without returning vital energy back to the plant world. Performers commonly use species of adventive house plants rather than native or wild plant species. PlantWave advertises that the sounds generated by their devices help listeners “connect to nature,” “relax,” and “focus,” echoing New Age music marketing claims from the 1970s onward. PlantWave perpetuates an extractive view of nature and consumes entertainment from plants without requiring musicians to understand botany or to reciprocate the gifts provided by the plant world.
Organic plant music is still performed; however the subgenre remains decidedly more underground than synthetic plant music. Zizia creates organic plant music by percussing the physical bodies of plants, thus assisting in the decomposition process and improving soil health. Our commitment to a deeply regenerative practice differentiates Zizia from many other plant musicians. For example, Zizia sustainably gathers plant bodies from around each performance venue and harvests native plant collaborators from our habitat restoration projects. Moreover, Zizia draws on ancient associations between plants and planets by composing scores for each concert based not only on local botany, but on local apparent astrology. Our restoration practice is inseparable from our musical performance: During a 2019 US tour, Zizia sowed wildflowers in degraded habitats around each venue. The wildflowers will be buzzed, rasped, rubbed, scraped, or tapped by foraging wild pollinators.
Humans have the ability to consciously choose between healing or hurting our planet, and musicians must engage more productively, rather than consumptively, with nature. Synthetic plant music encourages a naive and ecologically disengaged approach to music, where audiences and performers consume disembodied sounds generated with electronic biofeedback often from domesticated, indoor houseplants. In contrast, organic plant music presents a diversity of timbres unique to the physical bodies of plants from a botanically informed stance that unifies humans with habitats. Such embodied collaborations with plants foster appreciation for and interconnections with our complex ecosystems, education about each plant collaborator, and observations of measurable results from habitat restoration actions. There is no correct method for creating organic plant music, but rather than negatively extracting biofeedback from nature, musicians must find their own manner of creating positive and restorative feedback loops with nature.
Musicians were once mediators between the spiritual reality of tone and the sacred life force of plants. While the originators of both organic and synthetic plant music had deep spiritual relationships with nature, commercial products such as PlantWave divorce plant music from its original esoteric ecology. By composing from both astrology and ecology, Zizia exhibits one method of embracing plants as collaborators of planet music, where micro, meso, and macro observations and restorations of life are expressed through noises, sounds, and tones. The popularity of synthetic plant music demonstrates increased empathy with plants. Can plant empathy also inspire a deeper environmental ethic that fully acknowledges plant rights? Can organic and synthetic plant musicians work together to create plant music that not only professes to be healing for humans, but also strives to heal planet Earth?