Photos by the author
Mélodie Fenez is a French artist who claims she has discovered a way to harness plant sounds and turn them into music. When I first heard about her, I was intrigued and reminded of Václav Hálek, the mushroom composer, who recently passed away. I headed over to her home in Berlin to give it a listen.
Fenez began by poking the naked ends of wires into the leaves of the plants that fill her apartment. Then she handed me a pair of headphones with a cord snaking back to a control panel beneath her fingers. The panel itself was a modified children's toy covered in pictures of farm animals. It used to make barnyard sounds, before Fenez hacked it into an interface between her and the plants. With a deft hand, she began to play the children's toy. Otherworldly clicks, whistles, and wails filled my ears.
After the performance, I talked with Fenez to get an idea about what I had just heard.
VICE: That was amazing. Where does the sound come from exactly?
Mélodie Fenez: We all have a frequency. You could plug an oscillator into anything alive and it would make a sound. If I made holes in myself and plugging in an oscillator, it would translate the frequency within me to sound. That’s what I’m doing with these plants.
What do you mean when you talk about living things having frequencies?
Well, plants communicate with each other through electronic impulses. That’s what I’m tapping into.
And different plants have different sounds?
Right. Hibiscus, for instance, has a really complex sound. It’s deep. Spiderwort makes a more high-pitched tone.
Are you able to tune them?
My only way of working on the sounds is how I plug in the oscillators. If I plug them into the same leaf, I’ll have a sound that is way more high-pitched than if I plug them into different leaves.
When I heard the sounds change in your music, was that you switching between plants to form the notes?
And combining sounds. But it’s very sensitive. Even breathing can create enough movement to lose a sound. I have to be very concentrated.
Do the plants themselves react to being played?
Eventually they stop making noise and I have to plug the wire in elsewhere.
Why do they do that?
Well, the main predators of plants are worms and little insects. I’m guessing that the plants think the wires are insects, and they send this acid to get rid of the insect. The acid cuts the signal.
I read about an experiment where someone would come into a room and mutilate a plant. Later, when that specific person would return, the other plants in the room would create some kind of warning sound that’s too high-pitched for humans to hear.
I read about that too, actually. The plant could actually remember who harmed it. I have say, at first when I read about how plants defend themselves, I was like, “Oh my god, they react just like me when I’m attacked!” I could really relate to that.
Do they feel what I feel when I’m attacked? That’s really awful. So, for a while I thought, I can’t do this anymore. But then I learned that the hormone plants send when they’re attacked is also the one that makes them grow. A week or two after I’ve played a plant, it flowers like crazy.
Do you feel that you’re forming relationships with the plants?
What are those relationships like?
I check on them very often. I can see what they need. One is really thirsty. Another one is really wild—if you cut it and put it in a glass of water, it will make roots and grow. It’s made to invade the world. It never makes flowers until the day it dies. When it makes flowers, it means that it has no resources anymore and you can do nothing for it—it’s dying. It’s just making flowers to spread around seeds to continue invading.
They have personalities.
They really do. I talk with them.
What do you say?
I thank them when they have flowers, and I ask for forgiveness when I’ve not been nice.
Do they respond back to you in some way?
Yeah, in the way their leaves look and the way they stand. Things like that. I pay a lot of attention to the scars and the leaves, and sometimes the scars get bigger and the leaf dies. Even if the rest of the plant is alive, I’m like, “No, I’m not playing you, this is really harming you.” I can really relate to the way they react. If I was doing this with animals, nobody would want to hear about it or they would insult me. But plants are alive too.
They don’t have as good of a lobby as the animal lobby.
They need a celebrity.
The way you talk about your plants really makes me feel differently about them. I feel their presence more, and view them almost as characters in this room.
That’s great! Thank you. That’s what I want to do. I feel like they’re my really good friends. You know how, with a really good friend, you don’t have to talk or interact? You can just be in the same room and there is still a connection. That’s kind of how it is with me and the plants.
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