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- High Holy Strangeness: A Playlist for Ketamine by Eric Sienknecht - March 20, 2019
“The greatest delight which the field and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.” – Emerson
He began telling me that he was working with something new and strange, a technology that had allowed him to make contact with plants and that the plants had begun creating music on their own.
Two years ago, I spent part of the summer working alone on a music project at an artist’s residency in Marfa, Texas. One blazing hot afternoon, I took a break from my work and drove into the high desert mountains to look for a remote swimming hole. Later that night, while heading back, I got a call from Nico Georis, an old friend and musical collaborator of mine, and I pulled over at a desolate crossroads so we could speak. Nico and I hadn’t been in contact for a while, and something was different in his voice, an excitement but also a sense of confidentiality, like he didn’t want to be overheard. He began telling me that he was working with something new and strange, a technology that had allowed him to make contact with plants and that the plants had begun creating music on their own.
He didn’t want to say very much over the phone but insisted that I come experience it in person after I got back to California. I agreed to this and before driving off, I remember noticing that, in the darkness, the lonely crossroads felt heavy with shades of the Robert Johnson myth—how he made contact with a non-human entity that brought fantastic musical gifts to the world.
A couple months later, I made it to Nico’s place, a large yurt on a mountain above the coast in Big Sur, and he began to show me what he was working with. It was a piece of technology called Midi Sprout that had been developed several years earlier by electrical engineer Sam Cusumano. The interface was contained in a small box out of which ran a cable with two sensors on its end, similar to electrocardiogram pads that adhere to skin. These electrodes attach to the leaves or bark of a plant and register electrical conductivity across its surface; a source of information that is constantly changing, yet patterned. The Midi Sprout device then turns this information into signals that can be run through a synthesizer and experienced as music. The human artist chooses the synthesizer voice, musical scales, and production effects to apply to the signal, which does much to give the music shape and color.
We spent the day listening to different plants creating live music. Long, beautifully sculpted ambient figures moved through the air like smoke and then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, would shift into sparkling cascades of staccato notes. The music twisted and turned in the strangest ways, going from frenetic to placid and then falling silent for periods of time. The plant musicians, whom Nico has given human names like Shirley, Roberta, and so forth, had all of the spontaneity of talented human players (if not more) but followed a totally different set of rules as far as phrasing and timing were concerned.
In the glow of this strange music, it seemed obvious that the world around me was alive in complex ways that are hard to perceive ordinarily.
It occurred to me that the music had something like the quality of a trance-channeled document. It was the sense that a mysterious signal was being refracted through Nico’s personality, borrowing his creative vocabulary and symbol set in order to deliver information that came from beyond him. It was an uncanny feeling and, as I sat with it, the environment took on a distinct sense of animism. In the glow of this strange music, it seemed obvious that the world around me was alive in complex ways that are hard to perceive ordinarily.
Over the course of the day, we listened to the music shift in response to changes brought about by sunlight, temperature, and by touching and watering the plants. We speculated about the possibility of observing shifts in emotional tone over the course of the weeks during the crossover from summer to autumn. Nico has a goal to eventually create graphs of plant musical data that could illustrate gradual cycle changes in pitch and frequency over longer periods of time. At this point, the longest continuous plant music recording that Nico has made was for three days straight.
Needless to say, experiences like these raise serious questions about the complex sentience of plant life and our ethical obligations toward it, to say nothing of our brain-centric model for consciousness.
At one point, I went to adjust the sensors on a large potted plant that was creating music and, as I walked toward it, the plant abruptly fell silent. I took a step backward and, just as suddenly, the music started back up. Approaching it again but more slowly, the plant continued its song but now in a more subdued voice. Nico said that these kind of psi effects were relatively common and, although he remains somewhere between belief and skepticism regarding these phenomena, there were times when the plants seemed to respond to his thoughts alone. Once, as an experiment, Nico’s partner had used a lighter to briefly burn the leaf of a plant that was in the process of making music. It immediately fell silent and only resumed its song after she had left the room for an hour. When she came back, the plant went quiet again and it repeated this behavior several times that day. It seemed to have taken a while to learn to trust her again. Needless to say, experiences like these raise serious questions about the complex sentience of plant life and our ethical obligations toward it, to say nothing of our brain-centric model for consciousness.
From the beginning, Nico had been making recordings of the sounds that he was immersing himself in. He explained to me that his recording process was intuitive and open-ended. Often, he would let the plants create music for long periods of time, entire days, listening to the constant changes in the music and then, suddenly, something in the sounds would be reorganized, and it was as if the plant began to sing clearly. When this happened, he would rush over and hit the record button. The recordings made this way were gorgeous and, after I listened to them, we agreed to put together a full album of plant music to release on Psychic Arts, a record label that I have run for the last 10 years. In honor of the plant performers, Nico titled the album, Shirley, Shirley, Shirley.
People cried, asked tons of questions, caressed the leaves of the performers, or would sit lost in a kind of dreamy stillness in front of speakers.
While we began getting things together for the release, our friend, filmmaker Maximilla Lukacs, came to Big Sur to shoot some of the final recording sessions, which became the basis for the above short film. Her partner, photographer Todd Weaver, took the vivid photographs that we used for the album cover and promotional images. In San Francisco, we recorded a conversation about plant music with countercultural publishers and punk intellectual heroes, V. Vale and Marian Wallace, which was condensed to become the project’s liner notes, along with contributions from radio artist, Carlo Patrão. We arranged for it to be available for streaming, download, and, most importantly to us, on a beautifully designed double vinyl LP with stunning illustrations by Victoria Stocker. Once it was ready, we embarked on a promotional tour of offbeat venues around California: shows at a bookstore, a natural history museum, an experimental music space, and a festival at a hot spring in the desert. The response was frankly overwhelming, especially from those who got to see the plants perform live in concert. People cried, asked tons of questions, caressed the leaves of the performers, or would sit lost in a kind of dreamy stillness in front of speakers. The first edition of the record sold out quickly and we had to reorder more copies from the manufacturer.
So, what are we hearing when we listen to plant music and what does it mean? Does the sound have an inherent emotional inflection, or are we as listeners projecting our own meaning onto seductively beautiful Rorschach blots made of sound? It has been demonstrated that plants will grow towards a speaker playing recorded sounds of running water, which indicates that they have an intelligent awareness of sound. In this case, what is it like for a plant to hear its own song? Are there subtle threads of consciousness that connect our thoughts with those of the plant world? Is plant music another aspect of contact with what indigenous cultures call plant spirits? One small potted plant flourished when we took it on tour, shooting out new growths and going into bloom for the first time in its life. It’s odd to think that this would happen for a plant that is taken out of its stable environment and carried around in a van for a week. We came to the funny conclusion that it seemed to like performing publicly. Like all of the most interesting art, Shirley, Shirley, Shirley raises more questions than it answers.
Nico continues to record and create live plant music installations; most recently, he created what he called a “singing forest” in Big Sur, that involved the voices of several ancient redwoods projected into the coastal canyon where they grew. He tells me that he remains most interested in plant music for its potential to reveal the emotional dimensions of science; something like a gnosis, in which states of feeling and knowing merge. We’re used to visualizing and verbalizing data; that’s what we typically do. Making the data into sound is a way to experience information as art, reconnecting with the sense of wonder behind the impulse towards scientific inquiry. Again, this does not even begin to answer the more substantial questions raised in the process of making Shirley, Shirley, Shirley.
Personally, I do not struggle with these questions. As a lover of beauty, I am content with the intoxication I experience in encountering a piece of art like this. I can feel the presence of strange depths experience just beyond my usual place on the spectrum of consciousness and there are really no words to describe what this is like. When I listen, I find that the music actually takes all of my words away, and leaves me hanging in a state of astonished suspension, belly to belly with The Mystery. What more could I ask for?
You can listen to Shirley, Shirley, Shirley on Spotify here.
Download or order the double vinyl LP record here.
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