Philodendron Philharmonic

20
Mary Vaananen tunes in to office plants.

My friend Mary Vaananen records sounds made by plants in the dead of winter. Seems weird, doesn’t it? It is weird, but when you are growing desperate for spring, listening to tender plants is a good fallback.

Have you heard of plant neurobiology?

Michael Pollan laid out a you’re-not-going-to-believe-this argument in his 2013 New Yorker article, “Intelligent Plant.”

Wired for sound. Thaumatophyllum (Philodendron) bipinnatifidum.

The proponents of plant intelligence “believe that we must stop regarding plants as passive objects—the mute, immobile furniture of our world—and begin to treat them as protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature.”

Perhaps even the musical stage.

The issue that Pollan presents boils down to the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness. Plants are conscious. But do they know that they are? They are, without doubt, communicating between one another via intricate fungal partnerships.

To that end, each fall, Mary Vaananen moves dozens of potted plants from her beautiful and artful Louisville garden into the comfy indoor office space where she spends her workdays year round.

Now there exists a simple recording studio at the North American office of Jelitto Perennial Seeds where chores routinely run toward customer service, public relations and order fulfillment.

The winter home of the Philodendron Philharmonic.

Benefits come with working for Jelitto, though. While Mary was waiting to sow complimentary perennial seeds of Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ and Dianthus ‘Dancing Geisha’, the Philodendron Philharmonic filled the gray winter days with melody and heady plant science.

Mary’s plant menagerie was hooked up to a sensing device called a MIDI Sprout. The results are electronic impulses translated through a synthesizer-like device. The result is joyful, ambient noise.

Pollan didn’t prepare me for the surprise I felt from hearing the individual melodies of the four members of the Philodendron Philharmonic.

Philodendron

 

Croton

 

Sanseveria

 

Bird’s Nest Fern

 

The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” wouldn’t have been the same without a synthesizer’s effect. And the Philodendron Philharmonic wouldn’t have the same decipherable ambient sound without a MIDI Sprout.

I emailed Jonathan Gregg, the New York-based musician and songwriter who plays pedal steel guitar with SUSS, an ambient country band. What was his impression of the Philodendron Philharmonic? SUSS has more than seven million streams to its credit on Spotify. Their most recent album, “Ghost Box (Expanded),” came out in November 2018 on Northern Spy records, and their latest single, “Chisholm Train,” was released May 14.

Gregg responded:

“These recordings provide a fascinating insight into not only the variety of energy emanating from plants, but also how harnessing that energy can translate into a musical construct, with dynamics and shifting colors and tones subject to various types of stimulus, very much the way certain kinds of music come into being.

Suss

“In my work recording with SUSS, my objective is to provide as close to a spontaneous response to the stimulus (in this case, the tracks my colleagues have prepared) as possible to create a pure, unmediated signal. The ideal outcome is the nexus of inspiration and inevitability—the sense that this is the way it had to go based on the environment of the moment.

“This effort to not overthink and to rely on the most immediate impulse (very much like Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” philosophy) finds its purest expression in the entirely reactive process from members of the plant quartet.

“Indeed, these plant recordings compound that symbiosis, reflecting the possibilities presented by four sources interacting simultaneously. As with the improvisations of a free jazz combo, the music of the plants strongly implies a collaborative audiosynthesis, as the ensemble’s performance mutates and evolves. The parallels are as exciting as they are indisputable.”

Bird’s nest fern and Croton ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’ take a rest.

Welcome to the botanic bandstand.

But are plants thinking? I’m not sure.

What I am certain of is that trees are not as dumb as stumps. Neither are Mary’s philodendrons, crotons, sansevierias and bird’s nest ferns.

20 COMMENTS

    • Hi Gina. They may take a few seconds to load before they play. I hope you can hear the individual members of the Philharmonic. And better yet, try listening to them all at once. If you can’t hear them, trust me, they are interesting

  1. I have to know how to download the philodendron philharmonic. It would be great for meditation.

    • Hi Karin. Try again and wait a few seconds for the files to open. My regrets if they don’t. But, if you’re looking for something fun and soothing. Check out the link for the band Suss.

  2. And now I must go home tonight and listen to my ancient Steve Wonder album “Secret Life of Plants.”

    “I can’t conceive the nucleus of all / begins inside a tiny seed.”

  3. Woah! No wonder it feels so good to be surrounded by plants. Wonder what the outside plants are singing?

  4. Sally in SC….how about I do a recording of one of them outside the house tonight and post it here tomorrow? Stay tuned!

  5. Hi Allen,

    You’ve done it again! Another great read in true out-of-the-box manner. The “tunes” did open up for me and are totally intriguing. I’m thanking my Crotons in a few minutes.

    Gratefully,

    Diane in Denver

  6. Just, Wow (and yes, Star Trek did come to mind)! Really beautiful; I think listening to this music actually lowered my blood pressure a few points! I took a Coursera course years ago called “What a Plant Knows” (the professor who taught it wrote a fascinating book by the same title), and it’s incredible the broad array of senses plants share with us. They “see” a much larger spectrum of light than we do, though.

  7. I normally do not reply negatively to anything people want to believe. But this is clearly compost. This is the same as saying a rock wrote a poem. Seeing the rock might have inspired the poem, but the rock did not write the poem. A person did, just as a person took some spurious electronic signals coming from maybe Saturn? and attributed them to plants and then said those electronic signals were music. This type of thing undermines plant science in the public eye and causes them to believe things that are not even on the fringes of reality. Please do not support this kind of goofiness.

      • Oh, this IS fun! Poor Crystal, moved to be such a naysayer. Kind of sad. Anne’s explanation and Mary V’s confirmation are “crystal” clear & helpful. Not that your excellent, clearly written post needed any further elucidation. Allen, I tried to express my appreciation for the Concrete Rose post but Captcha wouldn’t let me. So now, fingers crossed, thanks for another great read. Hope all is well in KY, politics excepted. Diane

    • Crystal, no one is saying the plants created the music; rather, that the electric impulses from the plant were translated by the synthesizer into music. A scientist might study those impulses to learn more about how they factor in a plant’s development or metabolism, for example; Mary has chosen to create this music using the plants’ electric impulses as a starting point. I think that’s lovely. It is a little like being inspired by a rock to write a poem.

  8. Anne….i did not create any of this, simply used the midisprout interface and then recorded what came out. I love your response to Crystal.

  9. Thanks for ALL of your comments, Crystal’s included. The Garden Rant is the big tent of open garden expression. Everyone is welcome, except for Russian trolls.

  10. Wow, they are so soothing, so beautiful. Allen, in your response to Gina, you said “try listening to them all at once”, I did try but could not make all 4 run at the same time. As soon as I started the second one, the first one would pause and so on. What should I do to have all 4 running at once?

  11. Loan Tran, thank you very much. I must have lost my mind. I thought I’d listened to them all together, but I can’t seem to duplicate the tunes—all at once. My apologies. All the best, Allen

Comments are closed.