This Guy Makes Music Out of Mushrooms and It’s a Trip

“The other day, I got a text saying how the videos of mushrooms singing had helped his ailing mum.”

During the bleak Canadian winters of Montreal in the 1980s, Tarun Nayar found only one corner of warmth: his teacher Narendra Verma’s lessons in Indian classical music. Verma was himself a student of the legendary Indian sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar, who took Indian classical music to the global stage. 

For Nayar, driving down to Verma’s place every week meant not just falling in love with the genius musician but also understanding the meaning of vibrations in music, how notations sweep in, and how sound can be harnessed to make sense of the chaos around. 

More than three decades and a rock band (Delhi 2 Dublin) later, Nayar found himself going back to the initial days of learning music that “coloured his life.” Only this time, he did not anticipate the sheer virality his new range of music would end up creating. 

On his Instagram page, Nayar’s Reels feature him making music au naturel, so to say. In one Reel, cables are plugged into mushrooms that seem to be singing. In another, he seems to be deriving music out of a lone leaf he found in an old-growth forest in Vancouver. 

“It’s not as complicated as it seems,” Nayar told VICE, while he sat in front of a cactus with a synthesizer in his studio in Montreal. “I use various techniques to harness the bioelectricity of the plants and Earth’s natural resonance that is beyond the audible spectrum of the human ear.”

Nayar goes about the process by using the infinitesimal changes in the natural electric resistance of the plants or, in the case of mushrooms, fungi. 

“The plants are not creating any music themselves. I use the movement of water inside these plants as electrical resistance. So when I plug circuit cables to them, even small changes in the said resistance due to the plant’s natural bioelectric charge manifest as notes of music.”

The gear Nayar uses for his "organismic music."

In these videos, alligator clips can be seen connected to mushroom heads, leaves or other parts of a plant. To capture the Earth’s natural resonance, a grounding cord is wedged into the soil at the plant’s roots. Both cords connect to a synthesizer that can then be seen translating the plant's energy levels, as measured through biofeedback, into audible tones. Nayar occasionally fine-tunes the feedback from the plants by adding slight space echo effects – making the end product only that much trippier. 

Nayar often ventures out into the virgin forests of Canada with his musical gear to cultivate music out of butchered trees.

However, there is a method to the madness. This is where his brief but impactful training under Verma comes into play. Nayar falls back on the structure of the Indian ragas (a traditional pattern of notes in Indian music) to make sense of what the plants have to say. 

“I learned that Indian classical music is heavily influenced by vibrations,” he said. “When we interpret this electronically, through circuits and gears, the output is magical. If I’m working in the mornings, I’ll play ‘Raga Bhairavi’ (morning raga). I’ll probably use a note from it. So, just dwelling on certain notes helps me get even more involved at the moment.”

In Nayar’s videos, one can hear the many variations of what he calls “environmental music” that varies according to the elemental source. His viral videos featuring mushrooms seem to emit sounds straight from analogue bass synthesizers – almost like a slower version of the Stranger Things theme – while music from sword ferns is almost that of pearls dropping in a quiet room full of water. 

The phenomenon of clipping alligator clips onto leaves to synthesise music isn’t entirely new. In October 2019, American rapper and weed god Snoop Dogg’s company collaborated with a host of rappers, including Drake and Rich The Kid, to produce the first-ever commercially available song that used a similar process, “Sticky Situation”, which involved a cannabis plant. Companies have jumped on the bandwagon too. Devices such as PlantWave and PlantChoir use wired and Bluetooth technologies respectively to “create” music from plants.

Nayar’s videos picked up on Instagram only over the last two months. What explains the internet’s sudden interest in his music? He thinks it has a lot to do with us reevaluating our relationship with nature during the pandemic. And the same is also reflected in the many heartfelt messages he receives.

“The other day, someone told me how the mushroom videos helped their ailing mother feel better,” he said. “Then recently, I got a text saying these videos helped someone’s friend cheer up because they were having a hard time. It’s heartwarming to see people care about and resonate with plants so much.”

Globally, the practice of making plants sing takes on a different hue. In Damanhur, an ecovillage and commune in northern Italy, a singing plant concert was held eight years ago. Here, electric cables were similarly attached to all the plants and trees around the commune, resulting in an orchestra-like performance by the forest. 

For Nayar, the project is about seeking common ground with humans and nature.

Nayar expects no commercials out of his project. For now, he is content with rummaging around the forests of Canada and plugging cables to mushrooms and cacti alike to produce fascinating music. For him, even the virality of the videos is only incidental. 

“This project is for me. There is so much happening around us that we tend to forget the world is alive to us. If anything, this practice has renewed my sense of wonder.”

Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.

Tagged:

Music, Mushrooms, nature, plants, plantwave

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