What does a plant sound like?
A caterpillar chews on a leaf as its vibrations trigger a defense mechanism. A network of trees and fungi communicates across an entire forest. Plants are the enigmatic and the mysterious, the fascinating and the remarkable. But how can we comprehend and appreciate them without being botanists ourselves? BOTSOT is the Botanical Sonification Toolbox – a series of tools and instruments made for Max that explore invisible communications, information and structures within plant species, all through the sonification of data and plants’ environments. It aims to extend people’s knowledge and understanding of botanical life by revealing a world that is often only visible to scientists. Using the physical data and characteristics of any given species, BOTSOT allows for comparisons and deeper insights into plants through the medium of music. It is the result of a large amount of collected data, recordings and experimentation through collaboration with Associate Professor Rosanne Quinnell from the University of Sydney. It operates through a series of modular sonification tools, each of which works with every other tool in the toolbox. For example, the ‘Shape Sequencer’ might create rhythms from an outline of a flower, which is then in turn used to trigger the ‘Keyword Synth’, a synthesizer based on the description of the same flower. Sonic possibilities are endless, with the end goal being the creation of interesting, meaningful new music that embodies the unseen world of plants.
BOTSOT was created with resources derived from CampusFlora, a collaborative, interactive project created by University of Sydney Life Science students and staff that maps and explores plant life surrounding university campuses.
The DNA Sequencer turns sections of a plant's DNA sequence into rhythmic values. Much like the bases of DNA are translated into proteins in living organisms, the bases of DNA are in this case being translated into rhythmic values - for example, Adenine might translate to a crotchet whereas Guanine might translate to a semiquaver. 'Noncoding' DNA makes up a large percentage of any given genome, thus, sequences of DNA are chosen based on their relevance to the species - for instance, a particular sequence that is said to contribute to a Jacaranda's purple coloured flowers.
Contact microphones can uncover minute sounds and vibrations through the use of extremely sensitive diaphragm. By placing these microphones on and around different species of plants, unique sounds and contrasting resonances can be observed - sounds that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The Shape Sequencer takes a characteristic shape from a given plant species (such as a flower spike from the Coast Banksia), and translates the shape into notes. Within the chosen shape, points can be chosen to be sequenced at a chosen tempo. When the sequencer reaches these points, a note is triggered. The pitch, duration and velocity of these notes is determined through the distribution of the chosen shape. The result is an accurate sonic representation of the physicality of a plant, where denser areas of the shape (for example, the top of a Sydney Gum) have a greater amount and intensity of triggered notes.
Any given species of plant may have any number of remarkable patterns and shapes, whether it be the curve of a leaf or the ripple in bark. All of these profiles and structures serve a purpose to the plant, and are present as a result of evolution. The Image Envelope Generator takes a simple image of a plant, and applies image analysis in order to find the most prominent edges. From this edge, an envelope is drawn and ‘played back’ through MIDI data, eloquently sonifying the given profile from a plant.
The Keyword Synthesizer is a simple synth controller that creates a unique sound for any plant species through a series of algorithms based on keyword searching. By taking the most common 200 words from descriptions of plants and rating them against predetermined sound criteria, the variables of a synth can be automatically generated based on a scientific description of any given plant. In this way, each species receives it's own electronic tone colour, representative of the objective physical characteristics of the plant.
Field recordings exist within BOTSOT in order to provide a sonic anchor for the listener. Recordings of sounds that we hear every day from plants (for instance, the rustling of leaves) are important to the toolkit, as they act as a foundation for the context in which the other, more abstract sounds exist in.
Plants exist on very different time scales to people. We associate change in plants with seasons, and find it difficult to observe change on a smaller scale. The Sensor Drone Maker forms drones, an augmented musical technique, and applies them to changes in plants that occur over a longer period of time. A wide variety of sensors are used to collect slow-changing data, which is then converted to sound through analogue techniques. A comparison of these recorded sounds allows for a sonic understanding of changes that occur over time in particular species of plants.
CampusFlora is also available for download on all major app platforms