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Conduct A Garden Orchestra With Touch-Sensitive Plant Instruments

"Cultivating Frequencies" allows greenthumbs to become musicians, organically.
May 7, 2014, 4:40pm

In the past, The Creators Project has covered an array of part-music technologist part-greenthumb wizards who have modified plants to allow them to "speak," create sound, and even compose orchestral arrangements. These dives into next-nature—cybernetic enhancements to the leaves and plants that surround us—are consistently mind-blowing, as these projects allow us to actually hear the inner life and beauty of the environment.


Tomorrow, CalArts opens its Digital Arts and Technology Expo, and one project is continuing to pique our interest in bio-orchestras. "Cultivating Frequencies," a collaboration among music technologist Colin Honigman and designers Sean Chen, Marc Dubui, and Wen Han, is turning a garden into a generative music machine, including a interactive element that turns the individual plants into-touch sensitive instruments.

We talked to Honigman on the phone, who explained that this project is actually a two-part installation. A fleshed-out version of the musical garden was built in Spain for a private owner with help from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and architecture firm Cloud 9, while a "toned down" version will debut at the CalArts Expo.

The project works by pulling data from different sensors that are used for administering different nutrients in the garden and monitoring the overall health of the plants. Honigman then used a MaxMSP patch (an audio-visual programming environment) to collect the data, which became the data platform needed to yield a generative musical system.

In other words, the garden's life information—the pH levels of the hydroponic plant set ups, the soil moisture, the temperature—all effect the sounds emanating from the garden. The various data gets sonified, so in a way, you can hear the life and pulse of the plants. "You’re at the whim of the weather and the plant’s health," said Honigman.

As far as the musical system goes, the soil moisture controls the probability of a note changing or staying the same. The program sets a threshold, and if the moisture data falls below that threshold, then the generative sounds will change notes. "When the plants are watered, they're more activte, they're growing, they're happy," the music technologist explained. "So when they're watered correctly, it will sound better. If the soil is dry, it will be repetitive and stagnant."

Another piece of data that controls the music is the outside temperature. "It's a simple idea," said Honigman, "but think about the way crickets chirp faster when it's hot." The same goes for "Cultivating Frequencies," which has a one-to-one relationship between speed and tempo. Similarly, the humidity is connected to reverb and delay of the music—if it's dry outside there will be less reverb, less delay, and maybe more pure-sounding tones. And then the pH level bends notes out of tune, and also adds a bit of white noise to the sound. You can hear if the pH balance is out of its median area.

Finally, possibly the most fascinating element of the sound garden is its touch-sensitivity capabilities. Each of the plants is embedded with an electrode that connects back to an arduino, so when you touch the plants while the generative music churns, you can effect the note level and effects level, essentially allowing you to conduct a plant orchestra. "Even getting close to the plants and smelling them effects the installation, as the system detects the conductiveness of our bodies," added Honigman.

When asked if visitors could actually conduct this garden like an orchestra, Honigman said, "Feasibly, yes. With practice it could take on elements of an instrument. You'd definitely have to play with it a while, plus if several people are touching it you already have a bunch of overlapping voices, so to speak."


This is one of the most lush and, well, organic approaches to data sonification we've seen in a while. If the team behind this floral choir can make a personalized, homeowner's version of "Cultivating Frequencies," then it's time for us to make a trip to Home Depot and get our hands dirty.

If you're in California, check out "Cultivating Frequencies" and other awesome arts-tech installation at the CalArts Digital Expo

And visit Colin Honigman's site fore more info:


Artist Gives Plants A Voice

Exhibition, "Personified," Allows Visitors To Turn Their Heartbeats Into Music

Interacting With Plants To Create Polyphonic Music

Group Turns Natural Elements Into Musical Instruments