You may have seen Midi Sprout, a fascinating new Kickstarter campaign, doing the rounds lately. It boldly claims to be able to convert the biorhythms of plants into something we can understand, even enjoy; music. And that possibility has got a lot of people thinking. Is this new level of perception really real? And what impact could it have?
We put a few of these questions to its creators and quizzed them on its origins and potential future in the interview below. At the moment, it's sitting just $8,000 shy of being funded, so dig deep. Don't you want to know which plant shreds the hardest?
How and why did you come up with MIDI Sprout?
MIDI Sprout was born out of a Data Garden co-founder, Alex Tyson's fascination with early biofeedback experiments documented in The Secret Life of Plants along with inspiration from other biofeedback artists like Richard Lowenberg, Duncan Laurie and Mileece Petre. At the same time, I was interested in discovering new ways of finding compositions hidden in nature through field recordings. Translating natural forces into generative sonic environments was, for me, the yet another step in that direction.
In 2012, we were given an opportunity to do an installation at The Philadelphia Museum of Art which got us to focus and explore these interests deeper by producing our own biofeedback art. We worked closely with engineer, Sam Cusumano, to develop the hardware and software to translate the biorhythms of plants into data that could be used to control MIDI synthesizers. I then created a sound palette to express the data in a way that invited guests to listen closely for subtle changes in the plants' activities and explore for themselves the meaning and cause for those changes.
Since then, we've been touring around North America showing this work. Wherever we go, people ask us how they can begin making music with plants. We started doing workshops and lectures but the demand for these things is just too high for us to meet on our own. We decided that launching MIDI Sprout is the most effective way to get this technology out in the hands of the public.
What do you hope to achieve?
We hope this will encourage people to listen more deeply - to pay closer attention to their environment, the way they interact with it and the way their state of mind affects what they perceive.
Are you hoping to change or influence the art and music scene? In what way?
For us, it's less about changing or influencing the art and music scene and more about allowing the scene to manifest. We are merely building a conduit for all of this to happen.
We see a future where more artists incorporate biofeedback into performance and into the process of composing and recording new music. We find the traditional modes of composition being used in most rock, hip hop, electronic and even experimental music to be outdated. Every decade or so there is a new voice in music. We feel it's essential to the development of humans as a species that we start to recognize other beings and the creative forces within them. We see the next voice in music as being that of universal forces translated into sound. We see plant-generated music as being more powerful than traditionally recorded music because it creates experiences that respond to environments and can not be replicated or exploited through traditional media distribution channels.
Have you had much feedback from well-known musicians/artists?
We've been working a lot with artists on our record label to test out the MIDI Sprout. Chris Powell of Man Man / Spaceship Aloha spent a couple days with the device and can't wait to get his hands on the final product. Multi-instrumentalist, Greg Fox, (Zs, Guardian Alien) has used it in live performances. We attached one to his body at a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and had the MIDI Sprout control a synthesizer and generative visuals on a Sega Genesis hacked to accept MIDI.
At SXSW, Daedelus played a plant at the Ableton showcase. Vince Mason from De La Soul also tested it out last week at SXSW and was deep into it.
What would you like for the MIDI Sprout buyers to get from using it?
We'd like MIDI Sprout buyers to get a new appreciation for the activities of living plants and other natural forces. We look to encourage the public to question whether or not the creative force that inspires one to write music or poetry is the same as that which inspires a plant to grow in a particular way. We'd like people to come up with their own theories and answers to these questions and explore for themselves their own views on creativity, consciousness and perception. We see the MIDI Sprout as an instrument for free play where adults can rediscover feelings of wonder and connection with their natural environment. We'd also like for musicians to use MIDI Sprout in the generation of new musical ideas that they could never achieved with their mind alone.
How do you imagine MIDI Sprout to be a part of buyers everyday life?
MIDI Sprout can be used to monitor the activities of your plants. Buyers will be surprised to hear the large variations in activities of their houseplants throughout the course of a day. When you have a MIDI Sprout connected to a plant in a room and the music changes drastically over time, it welcomes questions of why those changes are happening. Did the intensity of the light change? Did the atmospheric pressure change? Has your mental state changed? While MIDI Sprout is designed to monitor the changes in conductivity of a plant leaf's surface over time, it's difficult to say what is causing these changes. Using MIDI Sprout to generate music from your house plants can be a way of discovering connections between the activities of plants and other outside forces, including the energy you put out into the world.
What's your favourite thing to connect it to and is there anything you suggest we don't connect it to?
My favorite thing to connect it to is other people. MIDI Sprout gives sonic form to life energy. It seems that the electrical processes on the surfaces of plants and people are a window to other more mysterious processes like unseen energy shared between people.
When I was at SXSW last week I met a massage therapist / energy healer who seemed deeply connected to the energy of the plant we were using at our pop-up installation. We ended up hanging out after the show and attaching one probe each to of our bodies - playing music simply by touching each other. We were both wearing headphones, so we were fully immersed in this alternate sonic reality tied to our own energy exchange.
Later we attached the probes to my body and she gave me a massage. It was really amazing to hear how the release I felt in my body translated into sound. There were points where I felt a rush of energy up my spine that corresponded to a wash of reverb in the sounds controlled by the MIDI Sprout. It was a deeply intense experience.
Using your body to generate ambient music with MIDI Sprout can bring realities within us to light through sound. There are a few things that you should not connect the MIDI Sprout to. Don't connect the electrodes to battery terminals, power outlets, your eyes, angry animals, other MIDI Sprouts or moving vehicles.
For more information on MIDI Sprout, head here. Questions by Victoria Jespersen / introduction by Peter Hinson.