THey musician Tarun Nayar, Mushroom’s voice is squiggly and wonky. Nayar’s “Organic Music” project Modern Biology has only been active since last summer, but with its videos of mushrooms making soothing ambient soundscapes, they’ve already racked up over half a million followers on TikTok and 25 million views.
The electronic artist and former biologist hangs out in mushroom circles, spending summers in the Northern Gulf Islands of British Columbia with the Sheldrake brothers: Merlin, bestselling author of Intertwined Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, and producer and songwriter Cosmo. So it seems natural that he will begin to look for mushrooms – not to eat, but to listen.
Nayar makes, in simple terms, “plant music”: it’s created by attaching electrodes and modular synthesisers to plants and measuring their bioelectrical energy, which then triggers observable changes in the compound. He describes the process as “an environmental feedback mechanism. It is based on galvanic resistance – the same principle as simple polygraphs.” We actively hear changes in resistance represented as whistling and pulsing sounds, like futuristic retro music from the very early days of experimentation with synthesizers.
It was my first time trying plants in one of those summers away with Sheldrakes. Nayar saw a thymble growing outside his cabin, attached the leaves to a synthesizer playing the piano, and listened. Nayar and others like him believe that these experiments with plant sonication are essential in establishing deeper connections with the natural world. “When people scroll on TikTok and suddenly a little mushroom appears, it’s a moment to reconnect, even if it’s through the phone. If music and deep tuning can bring us here now, there is hope.”
For electronic musician Noah Callos, AKA MycoLyco, based in North Carolina, “Just being able to find a signal that we can really perceive helps raise awareness that fungi are all living, we’re all part of the same thing.” Like Nayar, Kalos has gone viral with videos of his experiments connecting chrome synthesizers to create triple beats. “In my work I pick up cues and use them artistically. To experience that level of interaction definitely helps you feel more connected.”
Another person who’s also experimenting with plant sounds is Joe Battucci, CEO of Data Garden, a “data sonication” company whose PlantWave app translates plants’ vital data into music. With the help of the app, he just released a record of cannabis plants, aptly named 420. “The value of listening to plants is really about being in the moment with nature,” says Battiucci. “It is a reminder that we are all part of this same system. I hope that when people make this connection, they understand that destroying the Earth is destroying ourselves.”
It was this sense of environmental urgency that prompted acoustic artist and “biosystems designer” Millis to explore creating acoustic landscapes from plants more than 20 years ago. She is one of the pioneers in the field, though she cites the 1970s book The Secret Life of Plants that inspired a documentary, and John Lifton’s Green Music, based on bioelectrical sensing of plants’ response to their physical environment, as influences in her work.
Mileece has spent tens of thousands of hours developing software and hardware to translate bio-emissions (ie electricity and data) from plants into what she calls “aesthetic sonication”. They build immersive and responsive environments that translate the interaction between plants and humans into music. One of the 2019 installations at the Tate Modern, London was a pod filled with plants and flowers that interacted with the people entering and moving around the room. Her creations support the mission of educating communities about climate change and threats to biodiversity – work stemming from her early days experimenting with plants and electronics in her bedroom.
Mileece began working at a time when there was less acceptance of environmental sanitation or the climate crisis; Getting funding for her projects was a long and difficult process. “I was called out with all kinds of bad words for being an environmentalist. There is no difference between what Greta Thunberg says and what I say, but everyone kind of hated me for it.”
As a teenager, Mileece learned coding and trained as an audio engineer. In her mid-twenties she became artist-in-residence at the London School of Economics, where she developed a method for transcribing electrical signals from plants into basic elements of sound design. You showed me a picture of an early experience. On her desk is a potted plant with attached hair clips (she had made her own electrodes), connected to a custom-designed and synthesized module she coded herself, and attached to what is now an old Mac computer.
It’s been a long journey for her, and only now is she seeing a sudden proliferation of people hooking manufacturers up on mushrooms. “The fact that scientists and people in general are finally taking this seriously has been the point of my work all along, and specifically why I worked so hard not to make that a gimmick,” she says.
A cute video of a cactus singing that sounds like a gimmick, but Mileece, Nayar, and others work with plants because they say there’s no experience like that: finding this understanding of how the natural element interacts with their home technology. Music has a story to tell, too. MycoLyco recorded the sound for the Stella McCartney Show; The designer used mycelium – grown from mushrooms – as a substitute for leather.
For Mileece, it has always been about making connections between people and the planet. “It’s to help people remember how much better we are when we integrate with the Earth, so we don’t destroy it for ourselves or all other animals, insects and birds.”
At the very least, botanical audio scenes might bring some people closer to understanding the natural world — even if they come across a video for just a few seconds. These artists have made the plants sing, and they are asking us to listen.