The Plants we Play

Several months ago, the haunting life-tale of an Alaskan cedar forest became song. In three minutes, a piano and a cello encapsulated a 100-year period of wood change through a technique called data sonification, an innovative way of performing magic as old as humankind: the transformation of plant stories into music.

One of the first things children learn about nature is that the realm of active sounds belongs mostly to animals. Howls, barks, mews, caws, roars, tweets… What sound does the waterlily make? is an unheard-of question (and with good reason).

However, the world of passive sounds is full of grasses swaying in the wind, rain drumming pitter-patter songs on leaves, wood and seeds crackling under the lick of wildfire. Nature plays subtle music through the plant kingdom, and we soon recognised them as the stuff sounds are made of. Where our naked voice cannot reach, plants can sing like birds and boom like elephants stomping on the ground.

So they became our drums, they transformed our breath into the trill of a flute…and thus most of the world’s musical traditions bloomed at the intersection between plant versatility and human ingenuity, bearing fruits that reveal the skill of the instrument maker, the talent of the player and the life-story of the plant material that was transformed into a sound-tool.

Because plants shape the soul of music, what’s written in their grain – their identity, geography, past experiences – will lend different colours to the songs we play. Boxwood wind instruments sound unlike bamboo shakuhachis, and not every tree can gracefully become a viola da gamba.

However, most instruments owe their existence not to a single kind of plant, but to the harmonious collaboration of many plants working in concert, each bringing their special abilities to the ensemble.

Take the piano, for example. Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is used for the soundboard, tops may be crafted from poplar (Populus sp), rims from sugar maple (Acer saccharum), and hammershanks in birch (Betula pendula). Even instruments such as violins and cellos, which at a glance may not seem to offer as many collaborative niches as a grand piano, are the result of team effort: virtually every part of their body comes from a different tree species – from sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) to spruce, to which we may add many other ingredients featured in wood varnishes!

Thus wood (and bamboo) has shaped the history of the music we play, and music has in turn ended up shaping the woods from whence our instruments come. If the woods disappear, so do the songs we play through them, on them, thanks to them.

One case in point is the curious story of pernambuco (Caesalpinia echinata).

When Portuguese sailors first stumbled across these plants on the 16th century, growing in uncharted lands across the Atlantic, they weren’t thinking about music but of colour instead: the trees looked like brazilwood, a dye much used in Europe that came from very similar species in Asia (Caesalpinia sappan), yielding shades of red on clothing and in paint pigments. So lucrative the dye trade was, and so precious these trees, that Brazil became the de facto name of the newly found country so rich in brazilwood trees!

Centuries later, somebody decided that the colourful wood might be put to some other use besides the vat; so, for reasons unbeknownst to me, pao brasil ended up becoming the first pernambuco violin bow in the 18th century, and bow-makers never looked back.

Much is made out of luthier craft —the romance, science and art involved in making a stringed instrument such as a violin, a viola, a cello or a bass. However, violins are designed to sing at a bow’s command: what was once used to wage war on enemies, now is used, Orpheus-style, to tame the beasts through music, and deathly yew became pernambuco.

The wood of yew (Taxus baccata) was much valued for longbows; it was also used in medieval fiddle bows

However, the bow makers’ favourite wood is a threatened species in its homeland, where – as told in the documentary The Music Tree – overexploitation, uncontrolled agriculture development and fires have decimated this natural resource.

Unfortunately, pernambuco isn’t the only tropical wood that gives voice to ecological problems in our world. The poignant sound of Ennio Morricone’s song for Gabriels Oboe likely owes its existence to African blackwood or mpingo (Dalbergia melanoxylon), one of the preferred materials for woodwind instruments —and also threatened with extinction.

Still, you needn’t be a fancy exotic tree to become indispensable in plant music; in fact, even the most ubiquitous and humble of plants may hobnob with precious tropical woods, if you do your job extremely well. Thus, oboes and clarinets also owe their voice to giant cane (Arundo donax), from which reeds are crafted for most woodwind instruments. Incidentally, it’s also the material that the Greek god Pan used to fashion his syrinx or panpipes, to play rustic music in the wilderness. One plant, but many instruments and many sounds depending on the close alliances (or lack thereof) it strikes with other plants.

In the end, our songs are the hybrid child of plant and person: determined both by our plant materials’ idiosyncratic properties, and the skills and knowledge of crafts(wo)men and interpreters.

The world of plant-enabled music is a collaborative meritocracy based on beauty, both acoustic and visual, where any plant willing to play by these rules can chime in.

More of Aina’s writing is available to read on her website and blog.

Cane flutes (in this case, launeddas) are popular all over the world.