When Stan Smeets posted a video titled “I Made a Synthesizer That Plays Plant-Based Music Using Microscopes and Sensors” on a synthesizers Reddit group, users thought it was funny that he stumbled upon a meme. †[There’s a] stereotype of synth people who like plants,” one user explained.
Stereotype or not, there is a growing community of people using various sensors connected to plants and mushrooms as inspiration for synthesized music. The results range from scattering notes at an odd tempo to fully composed ambient music. Uploaded on Bandcamp, YouTube and especially TikTok, they can accumulate millions of views.
Different artists use the plants in different ways, but everyone I spoke to was pretty clear that the plants don’t really make music directly. The most common way they contribute to the process is through the use of electrodes, which measure small fluctuations in the electrical current between different parts of the plant. That data can then be used as part of the musical creation process; for example by translating it to 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,” linked the leaf patterns seen with the microscopes to different tones using a digital audio workstation (DAW). “You just sit in front of the microscope with some plants and hear what comes out, and start spinning them a little bit… and then use it as kind of inspiration to make real music. So there’s never really a real song coming out of the plants or the system without somebody actually looping some stuff and playing with some stuff,” he says.
He also began to incorporate broader elements such as wind speed, temperature and humidity. “So the leaf structures ‘play’ the notes, and then the weather sensors [are] choose which synthesizer the plants were going to play.”
This combination of experimentation and love for the environment is a theme in the community. All the people I spoke to started with a general appreciation for nature, whether it was Smeets who unexpectedly got green fingers as a COVID hobby or Fahmi Mursyid, an experimental artist who started plant-based music through soundscape compositions. “I wanted to expand my research on [using] everyday noise,” he says. He started out recording footage of an urban forest and percussion elements made from found objects, before eventually starting to use sensors to get the more detailed data from plants. Some he uploads raw, others are arranged in compositions.
Musician and unexpected TikTok star Tarun Nayar went through a similar process. “I started dreaming of a situation where I could build a synthesizer that would take information from the resonant hum of the earth, of the wind and tides, of bioelectricity of plants, and turn all that vibrational information into music” , he says. † The idea came about when the pandemic prompted 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 see all of this as an experiment.”
The experiment has nevertheless led to success on TikTok. He started uploading in April under the pseudonym Modern Biology and initially gained a modest following. Then he stuffed his gear into an ink-capped mushroom that happened to bear fruit outside his front door. “I did it on a whim and uploaded it.” The video now has over 25 million views. “I think I got about 160,000 followers overnight,” says Nayar. He was traveling at the time and didn’t have much phone signal where he was staying. “There was a service bar at the very far end of the property, so I remember signing up and thinking, what’s happening?” He thinks it was the mushrooms that did it. “Everything I do with mushrooms [is very popular],” he says. “If I spent the rest of my year just playing magic mushrooms, I’m sure I’d make a track with Tyler, the Creator or something.”
But going viral is not his ultimate goal; he just wants to keep experimenting with ambient music. “My fiancé and I spend quite a bit of time looking for mushrooms during mushroom season, but it’s not the focus of my life,” he says. Instead, he recently started a series on Hawaii’s flowers and fruits, captured on a recent trip. And that sharing is still an important part of the process. “I really see myself as a connection with nature… How cool is it that people pay attention to mushrooms and plants? hell yes. I’m all for it.”
He says one of the main questions he gets on TikTok is people asking how to do what he does. He recommends the PlantWave, the makers of which he knows ‘reasonably well’. PlantWave does something similar to what Nayar, Mursyid and Smeets do, but removes much 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 recording artist himself. He says PlantWave is the product of more than a decade of work in space. In 2012, Data Garden was invited to create an installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Inspired by experiments with plant awareness, they connected electrodes to four plants, with an algorithm designed by Patitucci transforming them into harmonies. This is still essentially what the PlantWave does. The device connects to an app that allows the user to choose which instruments they want to hear, taking the need to understand synthesizers out of the equation. (It also connects to DAWs and the like for more advanced users.)
Everyone I spoke to was open about the plants not really “playing” the music. But some of them also talked about the connections they felt while creating with the plants. Patitucci says that while he’s still not sure exactly what happened, he had a strange but profound experience when he first connected with a plant. “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 just when he said yes, I had a moment of excitement, and in sync… I saw this knob turn all the way up. I was like, ‘Whoa, wait, was that the plant? Did the plant just respond to me?’ and he just said, ‘I don’t know, but it definitely happened, it’s in the data.’”
And with installations, these artists often notice that viewers and listeners in turn react to the plants and the environment. At Smeets’ show, the weather had a major influence, because when the wind picked up, the music started to echo. “People noticed that something had changed [in the music] when you could feel the actual change,” he says. In Patitucci’s installations, he noticed that children pretended to somehow charge the plants and their sounds, while holding their hands towards them. “I just thought that was really cool, that there’s something intuitive about humans that recognizes plants as beings that we share energy with.”
Because of that sense of belonging, many in the plant music community are focused on experimenting with how much further they can take their inspiration. “I think this idea of using the environment in our compositions is still in its infancy,” says Nayar. “I’m so excited to go deeper in that direction because it seems like people are open to the 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 they haven’t been before.”