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Beats and Botany: Plants Inspiring Musicians; Musicians Inspiring Plants

Now through June 19, 2021

Music/Media Library | Miller Nichols Library, Ground Floor

Nature stimulates the senses of artists, branching out in unexpected ways.

Composers found inspiration in their experiences in nature, emulating that experience in the concert hall. The bloom of a rose, the tendrils of a climbing vine, the majesty of the redwoods, have been propagated with scores and sounds. Some even use plant material to make music.

Science, too, has examined the relation between music and plants, testing plant perception to determine response to music and even preference. In response, artists created music that would suit the needs of plants and simultaneously engage the human listener.

We've gathered a bouquet of works from our collection that we hope will stimulate your senses, curiosity and help connect you with the wonderful world of plants and music.

Visit the display on the ground floor to learn more about how plants inspire musicians, musicians inspire plants, and how plants can be both instrument and musician.

Enjoy our playlist on Soundcloud. We'll also post updates, recordings and related articles on Facebook (@UMKCMusicMediaLibrary), Twitter (@umkcmusicmedia) and Instagram (@umkclibraries).

Table with books, music scores, CD cases, and plants.

Display curated by UMKC Music/Media Library student assistant Audrey Watson and UMKC Music/Media Library Staff.

Plants Inspiring Musicians

Musicians across all genres have been inspired by vegetation.

Some simply composed music as odes to plant life and its beauty such as Roy Magnuson's “Plants in Terracotta Pots,” Richard Strauss' “Mädchenblumen,” Johann Strauss II's "Exotic Plants Waltz" and Ottorino Respighi's “Pines of Rome.” The gardening book "Plantcraft" includes an album, with Kenneth Ziegenfuss' "Quartet in a Green Key for String."

Nature can also be used metaphorically in art. Rhian Samuel does this in her collection of pieces, “Wildflower Songbook,” using the words of poet Anne Stevenson to plant an environment within the listener’s mind. UMKC composition professor Zhou Long also does this with the poetry of Lu Hsun in his piece “Wild Grass.” Slightly different from the other two examples, “The Carrot Seed” by Ruth Krauss inspired an LP to accompany the children’s book, which is a tale of a young boy tending to the growth of a carrot seed, even when everyone around him thought it would never sprout.

Other composers used music to capture the way plants made them feel. On his 1976 record, “Mother Earth’s Plantasia,” Mort Garson used nostalgic synthesizer sounds as a way of displaying his thoughts sonically. Garson transformed his experience with spider plants, philodendron, begonias, and many others into “warm earth music” that would be enjoyed for decades.

Stevie Wonder’s double LP "Journey Through 'The Secret Life of Plants'" started as the soundtrack for the film of the same name. To produce the album, Wonder had the documentary’s director describe the visuals on screen in detail, after which Wonder composed music to go along with what he imagined. The lyrics found on certain tracks were based on information in the film and the book the film was based on.

Music Inspiring Plants

Scientists and psuedoscientists alike examine how vegetation responds to certain frequencies and to different types of music.

In a 1962 study conducted by Dr. T. C. Singh, a botanist from India’s Annamalai University, it was discovered that balsam plants responded well to both classical Western and raga music, seeing an increase of about 20% height and 72% biomass when exposed to the music. Plants respond and adjust their actions according to frequencies just as humans do.

More recently, it was found that classical and waltz music have positive effects on the germination of alfalfa seeds, while different elements like scale, volume and rhythmic complexity may effect root growth.

With that in mind, musicians have created works specifically for the benefit of plants. Ann Chase’s “A Chant for Your Plants” uses an arrangement of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie #3” for piano and flute along with spoken word.

Former dentist George Milstein was inspired to produce the album "Music to Grow Plants" in 1970, with laid-back music that hearkens lounge jazz explorations.

In 2020, the UceLi String Quartet put on a performance of Giacomo Puccini’s "Crisantemi," for an audience of more than 2,000 houseplants in Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu. This unconventional audience was a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting theater shutdowns. Following the concert, all of the plants were donated to frontline healthcare workers.

Composer Mamoru Fujieda used data collected from plants to create "Patterns of Plants," resulting in 18 collections composed over a decade. Fujieda explains the works' complex tuning process in "Arcana IV."

Plants as Instrument and Musician

Have you ever made a whistle with a blade of grass? Some works use plants in the creation of the music itself, using leaves, stems, seeds, and twigs as the instrument, such as the piece “Child of Tree” by John Cage. The performer plays greenery such as cacti, pea pod shakers, and other leaves, flowers, and plants they can find as percussion instruments. Many cultures have used plants as instruments, such as the maracas, gourds with the seeds dried inside.

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra makes all of their instruments from plant material found in local markets, then makes a soup at the end of performances to share with the audience.

UMKC Conservatory professor Paul Rudy composed his piece “Degrees of Separation, Grandchild of Tree” as an homage to Cage’s work. Enamored by the use of plucked cactus spines in Cage’s original composition, Rudy decided to place this sound at the heart of his work. However, if the cacti was not amplified, its sound would not reach the ears of the audience. In his words, “Grandchild of Tree” explores the “relationship between natural objects and their unnatural extension.”

If you’re seeking electronic music, perhaps you can look to Joe Patitucci’s invention, MIDI Sprout. This is a device that translates the energy coming from living plants into MIDI signals, which can then be mapped onto instruments in a digital audio workstation. After this, the plants can be set free to unfurl their tendrils and improvise sounds at their own pace.

Posted: April 19, 2021