Monday, November 20, 2006

Music and Plants: "Our Amps Go To Zero"

A quick search on the net about plants and music will quickly turn up a myriad of articles all pretty much espousing the same thing: plants shrivel and die if exposed to non-stop Rap or Heavy Metal, but blossom and bloom when exposed to Bach, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, and classical Indian Sitar music. To most people, this probably sounds reasonable. One weeps for today's youth when they drive by in their lowered and amplified cars, pumping out thousands of watts of sound and making the car alternately implode and explode in time to a pulsing thud. "Our amps go to 11." Thus, the idea that nature, and plants in particular, side with what is largely perceived as civilized tastes resounds with reason and echoes our own particular wishes. "Our amps go to 0". It's a shame that it's just not the case. There is no research to prove that plants prefer baroque music. Were that it were so....

There is a huge amount of pseudoscience around this topic, but hard scientific information is, to say the least sketchy. Given the same sound levels, frequency outputs, and all other conditions being identical, plants do not seem to care what music is played. There is a catch, however. Plants do seem to grow better with music than without, the current thinking being that sound tends to excite plant tissue on a molecular level which causes the plant to regenerate and grow bigger roots and leaves which aids in nutrient and photosynthetic absorption, etc. But apparently only to a point. Loud sonic vibration can permanently damage cell membranes. This is probably the origin of much of the bad science regarding rock n' roll and plants withering.The fact of the matter is that plants have been growing for millions of years, and have been doing so surrounded by all the things they need to thrive - birds, bugs, wind, water , all of which produce sound. Growing in absolute silence is a completely unnatural environment for most plants. Sonic vibrations which most closely mimics natural sounds are likely to produce better growing results. That already narrows the taste in music to accoustic. Do sitars and baroque harpsichords sound more like birds and bugs than, say, Snoop Doggy Dogg? Probably. ( I only mention the famous Gangsta rapper as an example because, in a bizarre twist, Winter Harp played side by side with Mr. Dogg in a twin theatre complex in Calgary a few years ago. I can imagine patrons arriving at the multiplex going, "well, Winter Harp is sold out, let's go see Snoop").

Aside from corn, plants don't have ears (it's a joke, see?) so their perception of sound is already going to be very different. However, they do sense vibration very accurately. One plant that responds particularly well to sound-induced vibration is Mimosa pudica, also known as the "sensitive plant." Vibrations induce electrical signals across the leaflets of this plant, and cells at the base of the leaflets respond to these action potentials osmotically. This response results in a sharp change in the turgor pressure in the pulvinus cells, and that pressure change, in turn, results in the folding of the blade at the pulvinus. Another pulvinus at the base of the petiole may also respond if the vibration is severe enough. How would this plant respond in terms of growth if its leaves were kept closed by constant vibration? If you think very long about photosynthesis in leaves as the driving force for growth, you will realize that continuous leaflet closure would inhibit rather than stimulate the growth of the plant.

One of the first people to systematically study plant growth and the stimuli involved was also the very first person to send and receive radio waves. You're probably thinking "Marconi studied plants?" Actually, no he didn't. But he was not the inventor of the radio either, despite the fact that he usually gets credit for it. Jagadis Chandra Bose sent and received radio waves in 1895, more than two full years before Marconi. Would the fact that he was a Bengali explain his relative lack of recognition for this feat? Marconi had the best equipment and worked within the scientific community in Europe. Bose did it virtually in isolation, using equipment he invented using tools that he built himself, in Calcutta. Marconi patented everything, and became quite wealthy, marrying into nobility and eventually becoming one of the leaders of the Italian Fascist party. Bose did not believe in patents, and thought that all knowledge should be for the benefit of all humanity. It is pretty obvious which is the more significant achievement. Bose went on to write several incredible books (now out of print and very difficult to get) regarding hundreds of experiments he conducted determining the nature of plant consciousness.Bose demonstrated that plant tissues under different kinds of stimuli like mechanical, application of heat, electric shock, chemicals and drugs, produce electric response very similar to that produced by animal tissues.

For his investigations Bose invented several novel and highly sensitive instruments. Among these the most important one was the Crescograph -an instrument for measuring the growth of a plant. It could record a growth as small as 1/100,000 inch per second. Bose’s experiments on plants were mostly performed on Minosa pudica and the results were astonishing. In all his investigations Bose attempted to offer original interpretations and to devise models which were illustrative of the physical basis of memory. He claimed that plants can "feel pain, understand affection etc," from the analysis of the nature of variation of the cell membrane potential of plants, under different circumstances. According to him a plant treated with care and affection gives out a different vibration compared to a plant subjected to torture.

In short, it seems that plants do not respond well to Rap, Heavy Metal, Industrial, Thrash, Punk, Hip-Hop, and many other current musical trends at the sound levels which these styles of music are intended to be performed and played at. Plants do seem to grow better with Early Music, Baroque, and most accoustic music when it is played at sound levels which correspond to the original unamplified sound. But that's the catch. Plants probably would not like Wagner or Berlioz played at full concert volume, but probably would enjoy Led Zepplin's unplugged accoustic music. If plants could speak, likely they would not be saying "turn it up," but rather more likely they would say "turn if off!"

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ancient Computers

Speaking of solstices, equinoxes and the gloom of Winter, I recently finished reading a very interesting book by Professor D. De Solla Price on ancient analogue computers, specifically: The Antikythera device. This probably should be one of the major jaw-droppers of the 21st century. As usual, fact *IS* stranger than fiction, though it rarely gets the press play that fiction does.

Basically the Antikythera device is a clockwork analogue computer built by an ancient Greek mathematician from Rhodes in the first century BC. It was on board a Roman ship that sank 2100 years ago and was discovered by sponge divers in 1901. So heavily encrusted was the machine that it laid around in the back room of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens for over half a century before X-rays revealed the nature of the intricate mechanism. The computer is designed to accurately predict the position of the earth, moon, sun and various planets visible to the naked eye for any given date by simply turning a handle to the date in question. Keep in mind that the device dates from 80 BC, or about 1600 years before Galileo was almost burned at the stake for publishing the fact that the earth revolved around the sun. That such a device existed at all before the time of Leonardo da Vinci is so mind-bogglingly amazing, and the assumptions about the knowledge of the solar system so incredibly advanced, that it only opens up the question of what else the ancients knew about which we still haven't discovered? An earlier Scientific American article by Dr. De Solla Price suggests that the beginnings of clockwork in Europe actually were as a result of the Arab's familiarity with ancient Greek writings which have subsequently been lost to us. Through the Moorish conquests in Spain and the Crusades the information may have been transmitted to Europe. He concludes by saying:

On the one hand the Islamic devices knit the whole story together, and demonstrate that it is through ancestry and not mere coincidence that the Antikythera mechanism resembles a modern clock. On the other hand they show that the Antikythera mechanism was no flash in the pan but was a part of an important current in Hellenistic civilisation. History has contrived to keep that current dark to us, and only the accidental underwater preservation of fragments that would otherwise have crumbled to dust has now brought it to light. It is a bit frightening to know that just before the fall of their great civilisation the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology

An orrery maker in England has made a modern reconstruction of the Antikythera device based on De Solla's research. More recent research has given us an even better understanding of the device and its potential. Such companies as Hewlett Packard (makers of digital computers!) have built specific surface mapping technology especially for this project. Here is a link to a good introduction to the history and significance of this object.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Dark of December

It is such a delight to work on Winter Harp, that once the endless rains of winter start, I’m not bothered by them. In fact, I’m thankful. The rain keeps me indoors. People complain that the rain and the dark makes them depressed. But I’m so focused on the music and the beauty of the carols and the stories, that the weather is immaterial.
I sit by the fire, play the First Noel on my harp and listen to the continuous drumming of the rain on the roof. It’s cozy. It’s right. It’s winter. It is everything Winter Harp is about.
The cold, dark and damp forces us inside both physically and metaphorically. In less than two months the days will start getting longer and spring will be on its way. Time passes. Darkness turns, once again, to light.
I heard a bird sing in the dark of December:
‘We are nearer to spring than we were in November.’
I heard a bird sing in the dark of December.

- Lori

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Non-Human Music

I found this site amusing, it surprised me that scientists were this slow to discover that other mammals besides humans were capable of reproducing musical "rhythms." I've had discussions with ethnomusicologists who insist that music is exclusive to humans. I am not convinced.

Many animals in nature sing, but we humans have arbitrarily decided that only we can produce this narrowly defined concept we refer to as music. At least, that's what scientists would have us believe. My personal experience has proven to me that this is wrong. I've always known that some animals love to sing, and I've had wonderful duets with dogs I've owned. Coyotes often get together to have a choral sing-along in the evenings. I remember hearing them while hiking in the Chilcotin. Some people find these choral fests eerie or freightening. I've always loved the sound - to quote Bram Stoker "Listen to them -the children of the night. What sad music they make." The English word "coyote" in fact, is derived from the same Spanish word, which itself was borrowed from the Aztec word "c├│yotl" which means "singing dog".

I used to volunteer at the Aquarium many years ago, and I remember one morning, as I was cleaning a window with a squeegy, a whale came up to the glass and started singing. This was not all that unusual. What was different was that she started to sing in a pitch very similar to the sound of the squeegy. So I started making the squeegy pulse - skree- skree-skree. And she repeated this same pattern. Cool! I thought. So then I started playing the 1812 Overture with the squeegy. Amazingly, the whale reproduced the tune reasonably closely. We just stared at each other for a few moments after that in silence. My friend Tony and I quit volunteering shortly after that - keeping whales in captivity is wrong for so many reasons, but for me it was that one event that changed everything. Whale songs are nothing new, but this whale was singing my song.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


I went to a very interesting lecture on Saturday at UBC, part of the Vancouver Institute's always excellent lineup of speakers. Professor Robert Silverman, School of Music, UBC, talked about why he played Mozart on a "real" piano, vs. a pianoforte. He argued that Mozart would have done anything for a piano that does what modern pianos can do, and that the instruments of his day were not capable of the expression that modern piano's are capable of. As well, Professor Silverman noted that were Mozart alive now, he would most certainly be playing a modern piano. By way of example, he played the same piece of Mozart (on a modern Yamaha Conservatory grand) imitating, with only slight exaggeration, what it would have sounded like were it played on a pianoforte, and then what it would have sounded if someone played it in a 19th century Romantic style, i.e.: historically uninformed. Finally, Silverman played the same piece trying to express what Mozart really intended. There is no doubt that Professor Silverman is a great interpreter of Mozart, and is immensely talented. The differences were really very significant.

I couldn't help thinking about his comment that Mozart, were he alive now, would be playing a modern piano. I'm not so certain. He definitely would not be playing a pianoforte- that I can accept. But would he play a modern piano? Like Bach, Scarlatti, and Beethoven, (and many other famous composers) Mozart was always looking for the best - instruments that were capable of expressing every nuance of their artistic vision, instruments that did not interfere with this expression, and which were the ultimate interface between emotion and sound. I would tend to think that Mozart, were he alive today, would not be writing music that sounded anything like the Mozart that we know. Mozart would probably be a composer of mega Broadway musicals, and he would probably moonlight as a keyboardist in a punk band at night. Bach would be behind a stack of electronic keyboards hooked up to a powerful computer, carefully crafting his mathematical fugues with 144 different counterpoint lines. In his lifetime, Bach accumulated quite a good collection of keyboards, mostly harpsichords, but as well he had a number of clavichords, and interestingly enough, two lautenwerks. I think that is pretty indicative of the fact that he was after the latest and greatest, and was not necessarily married to harpsichords or pipe organs. It’s just that these were the instruments of the day, and that is what he composed for.

The “limitations” or idiomatic particulars of each instrument are critical in understanding music composed specifically for that instrument. The harpsichord is not capable of a great deal of difference in volume, no matter how hard you pound on the keys (and this does the instrument no good whatsoever). To vary the volume within a piece of music a composer simply wrote in more notes. More notes, more sound, less notes, less sound. To play Bach on the piano, no matter how beautiful played, is a bit anachronistic. To play Mozart on a modern piano is similarly out of context, but the results in both cases probably justify the transposition. Glenn Gould owned a harpsichord and played it to work through much of what he later recorded on a piano. The nuance and subtleties that the mechanics of the earlier instrument provides often gives an important insight into the mind of the composer and what he was trying to create.

The harpsichord was in general use for over 400 years until the piano reached a state of development that made it a practical instrument. The harpsichord, then, can be considered a fully developed and “finished” instrument. It has reached the zenith of its technological evolution. Modern “enhancements” the use of metal, plastic, and plywood, have not been generally regarded as improvements, and in the field of harpsichord building, authenticity is regarded as the hallmark of a fine instrument. The same cannot be said for pianos. There are several historical instances of early pianofortes being converted into harpsichords, which tells us that early pianos were probably not the best. With the advent of mass produced cast iron and factory made movements of great precision, even a person of modest means can own an instrument that would have been a technological marvel in Mozart’s time.

In my opinion, Professor Silverman is correct in his conclusions of why playing Mozart on a modern piano is justified. I’m just not convinced it’s because that’s what the original composers would have done had they been alive today. I’m also equally certain that they would not be composing the type of music that the constraints and idiosyncrasies of their instruments afforded them.

In a way, this is almost the opposite of the issues that we face in Winter Harp. Some of the instruments we play are very ancient indeed, but we are by no means early music purists. Using early instruments- Celtic harps, psalteries, clay drums, etc. is mostly a conscious decision to avoid the familiar sound of their modern counterparts. What’s curious is that many people have commented that some of our instruments have a decidedly electronic sound to them.

I guess you can only relate to what you know…