forest / sound

21Mar14

The artist Bartholomäus Traubeck has fashioned a turntable that plays cross sections of tree trunks as if they were records.  The tree slices aren’t played directly, of course, but are instead read by a PlayStation Eye Camera that sends the data to a computer where it is translated into piano notes that correspond to the shapes of the tree rings.  You can read more about the process here.  I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of transposing patterns found in nature in ways that make them intelligible to the human brain — I’ve written about this quite recently, in fact — but as one person I know has complained, Traubeck’s “Years” might be doing a disservice to the voice of the trees by making them sound a little too intelligible, a little too familiar, a little too much like the language of a Windham Hill record.  On this reading, Traubeck’s piece is guilty of un-weirding nature in order to make it pleasantly consumable, which sound remarkably like what’s done to trees when they become the furniture that we sit on.

In a very good Data Garden interview with Traubeck, he explains his choice to use piano tones by implicitly comparing the lengthy central position the piano has held within the European musical tradition — “the piano itself sounds the same for hundreds of years” — with the way in which tree rings express the passage of time as a repetition of similarity in difference.  In other words, the piano here is seen as a kind of constant, the musico-cultural counterpart to the arboreal life that surrounds us: always present and central, and yet such an established part of general existence that it easily disappears into the background.

Yet another person I know complained that the piece is a bit of a false advertisement.  He wanted to hear the actual sound of the tree rings, not a digitized translation into slightly-off-kilter, but ultimately quite familiar, piano tones.  Of course, what you would get by dropping a turntable needle directly onto the cross section of a tree trunk is nothing but a bunch of noise, most likely without any recognizable structural content.  In other words, you’d end up hearing the sound of a phonograph cartridge in distress, rather than anything approximating what the sound of a tree might (conceptually) feel like. It would probably sound something like this:

My friend’s comment did make me think more about what listening to tree rings directly (at least, in the physical sense) might sound like, and the process that would be involved: Carve a groove into a cross section of a tree following the shape of the rings, but make sure the groove moves from ring to ring like a record. You couldn’t play this with currently existing phonograph technology, because the needles would be to sensitive and it would just sound like noise. However, it would be fairly easy to make a primitive cartridge using a larger piece of smoothed hardwood as a needle. This could then be run (it would be mono) into a custom amp designed for the kinds of waveforms that would be produced by the needle’s reading of the grooves. Alternately, such a system could eschew electronics altogether and use horn-type amplification like an old gramophone player. The horn would be made out of wood, naturally, and might end up looking a bit like a Yamamura Churchill horn speaker.

But what if we could hear the speech of plants directly, as in Roald Dahl’s famous story, “The Sound Machine,” about a scientist who invents a device that can translate the language of our leafy friends into human language.  And then, of course, he discovers the pain that plants feel as we uproot them, tear them to pieces, and decimate them for human use.

As it turns out, plants actually do talk to each other in a language that we can’t understand directly.  This isn’t language as we know it, but rather a network of chemical communications through which plants relay information to each other at a distance.  For example, trees being attacked by insects send out signals that are ‘heard’ by nearby stands of the same species that haven’t yet been attacked.  These trees can then prepare for the onslaught by producing chemicals that repel the insects.  It goes beyond this, however.  Not only do plants talk to each other, but there is a constant thrum of insect communication as well, much of which is related to the chemical signals being given off by surrounding flora.  All around us and invisible, the forest is speaking.

Since we can’t actually hear the sound of the forest directly, we’re relegated to the kinds of translations made available to us by artists like Traubec.  Whether or not these translations ultimately strike us as successful or not will depend on a variety of factors, not the least of which will be the dictates of personal aesthetic taste.

Part of the disappointment that some people seem to have with these kinds of ‘translations’ seems to stem from a desire to have an unmediated encounter with nature, a transcendent experience experience somewhat akin to Emerson’s famous description of becoming a “transparent eyeball.”  Of course, as Christopher Cranch has illustrated, the figure of the transparent eyeball walks a fine line between transcendence and absurdity and perhaps the most absurd conceit of all is the notion that an unmediated experience with nature would ever reveal anything to us other than our total disappearance.

A much more useful way to think about communing with nature might be to re-frame the entire question in order to foreground the concept of interaction.  As it turns out, in fact, a great deal of the world’s biodiversity is a product of those interstitial zones where the wilds run up against human settlement.  Japan’s traditional satoyama rice paddies, developed over thousands of years, have become the home to numerous species, many of which have evolved to thrive in the niche created by the satoyama ecosystem.  However, as traditional rice farming practices have begun to disappear, and as land that was once cultivated for rice growing dwindles in certain countryside areas, the satoyama environment — and the biodiversity that comes with it — has begun to disappear.  Apparently, over half of Japan’s endangered species hotspots are located in disappearing satoyama areas.

Perhaps a turntable dunked under the water isn’t exactly the image of anthro-natural interaction that immediately pops to mind, but since this post started with a turntable making music out of a tree, why not end it with a fantasy about a turntable making music in the trees (under water).  It’s like a secret forest fairy pool that unleashes a forest-grove dusting of pop, an electronic Lady of the Lake offering up vinyl bliss instead of a mythical sword.

While I do like artist Evan Holm’s submerged turntable piece — especially the way in which the spinning record forms the most delicate of whirlpools — I still think that the “Notti’s Dream” sequence of Funky Forest (an absolute must see) might be among my favorite visions of techno-utopian harmony with nature.



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