Explorations in Bioelectronics

Words by Michael Prime
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Michael Prime

“When considering the spontaneous structures which arise in truly improvised music, questions of the immanence or transcendence of mind in body become irrelevant. Awareness comes that the mind of the player is to be found everywhere in an information carrying circuit, such as:

“Differences in vibration of instrument; differences in vibration of eardrum; differences in central nervous system; differences in muscular action; differences in tool of excitation; differences in vibration of instrument…

“Each of these circuits interlinks with many others to form larger systems of mind. This concept of mind is equally applicable to other complex information-carrying circuits, such as an oak wood or a coral reef.”

[1]

I wrote the above in 1987, in an attempt to describe the sense of  ‘group consciousness’ I was experiencing in live electronic improvisations with the group Morphogenesis. By abandoning preconceived structures and surrendering one’s playing to the unfolding moment of the music, we sometimes found that musical events took place which were more complex and surprising than any of us could have conceived of individually.

Since that time, I have conducted an ongoing exploration of musical interactions with ‘larger systems of mind’, by improvising with autonomous and semi-autonomous elements from the natural world. In 1992, I tried to sum up my explorations in a statement:

“Towards a New Ecology of Sound

“In my music, I try to bring together sounds from a variety of environmental sources into a performance space, particularly sounds which ordinarily would not be audible. I also use live electronic processing to give these sounds new characters, and to enable them to interact in new ways. For instance, traffic sound may be filtered so that it resembles the sound of surf, while actual sea sounds may be transformed to conjure up images of an interstellar dust storm. Electronic processing allows microscopic and macroscopic sounds to interact on an equal basis.

“I am especially interested in organic sound sources, such as plants, fungi and the human nervous system. All of these have participated in my music, thanks to a machine known as a bioactivity translator. This is able to translate the fluctuating voltage potentials produced by all living things into sound. I have also invented a mechanical instrument which can sound remarkably organic, in the form of my ‘water-machine’. A system of pumps and valves is used to control the production of bubbles in a small water-filled chamber, which is then amplified and processed electronically. The resulting sounds can resemble those of pond life at one end of the scale, or of the sea at the other.

“Short-wave signals interpenetrate our bodies at all times, and provide a vast musical resource. The signals may originate from cosmic sources, such as the sun, pulsars and quasars, or from human sources. However, they are all modified and intermodulated by the earth’s own nervous system, the magnetic particles that surround the planet like the layers of the onion. These layers expand and contract under the influence of weather systems, the sunspot cycle, the cycle of night and day and other cosmic forces, to produce complex patterns of manipulation.

“Many of the characteristic effects of electronic music (such as ring-modulation, filtering, phase-shifting and electronic drone-textures) were first heard in the interaction of early radio broadcasts with the earth’s magnetic layers. Perhaps Gaia was the first composer of electronic music.

“‘Eventually, I hope to use all available technical means to access further environmental sound sources. At a given location, plants, fungi, animals and humans could be electrically and acoustically monitored, wind and water could be used to drive sound sculptures, and receivers could be tuned to radio, gamma and cosmic rays. This would provide an infinity of possibilities for live musical interactions in a new ecology of sound.”

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[2]

I am an ecologist by training, and my study of the interactions of humans with natural systems has provided a springboard for my work in sound. The self-balancing nature of ecosystems and the complexity of mankind’s relationship to the natural world seem directly relevant to me. For example, the same human activity (such as felling woodland and the prevention of regeneration by grazing) can result in either a decrease (in the case of tropical rainforest) or an increase (in the case of chalk downland in Britain) in biodiversity, depending on how and where the activity is carried out, and how long it has to develop. I have always preferred to work with sounds that have some independent life of their own, and which I cannot completely determine. These do not have to be sounds from nature; sound sources such as my ‘Water Machine’ or short-wave sounds, feedback systems or computer software incorporating random elements all have a complex, cybernetic life of their own. I can adjust their outer parameters and interactions, but they will always have a surprising quality that I will have to react to. In this sense, my music is based on the creation of ‘ecosystems’ of different sound elements.

“Both genetic change and the process called learning (including the somatic changes induced by habit and environment) are stochastic processes. In each case there is, I believe, a stream of events that is random in certain aspects and in each case there is a nonrandom selection process which causes certain of the random components to ‘survive’ longer than others. Without the random, there can be no new thing.

“Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory processes — the endless trial and error of mental progress — can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for something like survival” (Gregory Bateson, Mind And Nature).

Like Bateson, I believe that the concept of natural selection can be applied equally to the processes of the human mind and the survival of organisms in nature. Randomly induced ideas or sensory impressions are tested against the memory bank of similar ideas and impressions, just as new mutations are tested against existing organisms in the natural world. The comparison of newly perceived patterns with known ones may eventually allow a metapattern to be deduced.

A further aspect of ‘sound ecology’ centres on the interface of mind and landscape, and the production of site-specific works. This interaction may take place on many levels, and extends far beyond the mere use of location recordings. Particular regions of our planet often seem to possess genii loci, which find expression in the interactions of geology, topography and climate with the plants, animals and human civilisation found there. These influences are active on any sound artist, but the ‘sound-ecologist’ actively engages in an investigation of these metapatterns.

The ability to amplify bioelectrical signals from living plants and animals allows the composer to interact with natural processes on many new levels. The Bio-activity Translator directly measures the fluctuating voltage potentials produced by living organisms, which constantly vary according to their mental or physical state. Voltage potential is a much more sensitive indicator of these states than skin resistance, which is what is measured by ‘lie-detectors’. Dr. Harold S. Burr, of Yale University, made extensive studies of these potentials, which he called ‘L-fields,’ in the 1930s and 1940s. He had several local trees connected to voltage meters for a period of years, and discovered that their voltage potentials varied not only with periods of light and dark, but also with the cycles of the moon, magnetic storms and sunspots. The fields of humans varied not just with these natural rhythms, but also according to mental state, health, presence of cancer etc. He finally postulated that these fields were not just a pattern produced by living organisms, but were also the morphogenetic blueprint that controlled their development.

Burr’s work provided the inspiration for my CD L-Fields, in which I recorded bioelectrical signals from three different plants in situ, together with the background acoustic. These sounds were used in raw, manipulated and intermodulated form in the compositions, but always retaining their natural rhythms. In the field, choices have to be made about the parameters the translator is set to, which will affect the frequency range and other aspects of the sound. Nevertheless, the rhythms which emerge are very much a reflection of the life processes of the plant. A dead plant, or a fruit or vegetable which has been picked, produces only a static tone.

The pieces on L-Fields are ‘sound portraits’ of the life of each plant, in which an hour or more of bioelectrical recordings of a plant and its acoustic background are condensed into a 15 or 20 minute piece. Nevertheless, there are sections in each piece in which ‘real-time’ events take place. For instance, the harsh outbursts at the beginning of ‘God’s Own Dibber’ were produced by the plant when it was suddenly struck by a beam of sunlight. The more continuous sounds which follow were produced in the cloudy conditions which otherwise prevailed on that day.

I chose to use hallucinogenic plants as the subject of L-Fields because of their complex relationship with the development of human cultures. This interaction may extend back into prehistory, when ingestion of hallucinogenic plants may have led to the first ‘religious’ ideas in early humans. The shamanic themes and visual style, (often involving the interpenetration of human and animal forms) of Cro-Magnon cave paintings certainly suggest this. In our own age, composers and musicians in almost every field have created music influenced by their ingestion of such plants. Would any similarities be apparent in the bioelectrical sounds of these plants and their human cultural artifacts? Amazingly, it seems to me that the sounds of the Cannabis plant do have a ‘trance-like’ quality (with occasional violent outbursts!), while the sounds of Amanita muscaria (the Fly Agaric mushroom) seem to contain some of the rhythms heard in the drumming of Siberian Shamans.

The extreme sensitivity of plants to their environment presents particular problems for live performance. Being moved to the performance venue often causes the natural rhythms of the plant to be submerged by its drastic reaction to its new, and apparently unfavourable environment. However, in 1991, I was able to give an outdoor performance in Madrid (for CIEM), in which I wired up a 1000 year old olive tree in situ. It was a complete contrast to the potted plants I usually have to use in performance. It seemed totally unaffected by the human activity around it – even touching it (which produces a strong reaction in a small plant) had no apparent effect. Living on such an extended time scale, it was as if it took no more notice of humans than it did of the small flies buzzing around it.

The dictates of performance spaces do not usually permit the amplification of plants growing in natural surroundings, so this year I have been conducting a series of performances/installations in which I amplify an artificial, indoor ‘ecosystem’. A room is filled with subtropical plants, which have already been acclimatised to life indoors. Four or more of the plants are connected to bioactivity translators, allowing us to listen in to the ‘nervous system’ of the plants. Electric fans are used to produce an artificial ‘weather system’, which may vary from a light breeze to a strong wind during the course of the installation. As the plants’ leaves begin to move, they activate light beam sensors which filter the bioactivity sounds, creating an ever-changing sound picture.

One of the most interesting performances of this work was at an event called ‘Capture Brussels’ in May 2001. The performance took place in the Halles de Schaarbeek, a vast metal-girded structure reminiscent of large Victorian railway stations, such as King’s Cross in London. In the main hall, four Ford car bodies hung from chains from the ceiling. Each had a speaker inside, through which one of the artists would diffuse treated pink noise (a variation of white noise typically used to test audio equipment). My plant installation was in the smaller hall next door. We hoped it would be a space for relaxation, where the audience could lie on cushions on the floor and listen to the changing plant sounds. However, all did not go to plan…

On the night of the installation, many hundreds of people turned up, since the event was also some sort of party marking the end of an arts festival. When the performance began, they all tried to crowd into the small hall, since nothing much was happening in the larger space. Only one security guard was on duty, and he was soon lost in the throng. Many people seemed very sceptical that the sounds were actually being produced by the plants — perhaps they did not notice the small wires and electrodes. Some began to touch the plants to see if the sound changed, which it did. This much I had expected. But others, encouraged by this began to shake the plants violently, getting an even bigger change. Eventually, people began to grab the equipment itself, fiddling with the settings. The recording of the event is very interesting, even though it did not go to plan. For the first 20 minutes, the sound world of the plants slowly develops, and the sonic ecosystem sounds balanced. Then, as people began to handle the plants, they begin to emit sounds resembling yelps of pain! Finally, as people began to play with the equipment itself, the sound world is filled with increasingly noisy and chaotic sounds. It seems that the piece became a microcosm of man’s activities on planet Earth, unbridled selfish activity damaging the ecosystem and sending it spinning out of control.

Given a different environment, the piece unfolds in a very different manner, such as happened at the Rising Sun Institute in Reading in June 2001, with a small but attentive audience. Candles were the only lighting, helping to create an atmosphere of group meditation. About 20 minutes into the piece, a strange thing happened. A pulse of energy seemed to travel through the room, and everyone opened their eyes at the same time to look for the cause. At the same time, the sound of all the plants changed drastically for a few seconds, and they all emitted the same, unusual sound. Several people asked me what this was afterwards, and I had to say it was a complete mystery to me — but it did seem like both plants and people were resonating together for a few seconds.

As I develop the means of realising more complex ‘sonic ecosystems’, I hope to give more audiences the opportunity of participating in such larger systems of mind’. I am sure that more surprises are in store, and perhaps such exercises may even help us to gain a greater awareness of our interactions with the natural world.

 

SOURCES:

  1. Bateson, Gregory, Mind and Nature (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979).
  2. Burr, Harold S., Blueprint For Immortality (London: Neville Spearman, 1972).