Brass Band Director Conducts a Greenhouse Symphony

The realms of botany, physics, math, and music cross-pollinated in the greenhouse on Monday when Brass Band Director Sam Nester showed students how plants can make music! Click here for a brief video of the installation.

“The goal was to create a system that would allow the plants of the greenhouse to control a series of instruments and make music,” Mr. Nester said.

Using open source technology developed by electrical engineer Sam Cusumano, Mr. Nester had modified biodata sonification devices converting galvanic conductance to MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) data. He attached these devices to different leaves of a plant to form a circuit that would allow the device to read and transmit the plant’s biodata into a live sound installation.

“All plants have energy—energy as they process the sun, the air, changes in temperature, etc.,” said Greenhouse Keeper Lauren Paull. “The electrodes pick up that energy and transmit it to the device. Mr. Nester assigned each of the signals coming from the plant to different musical parameters, which his installation plays. That is what you hear when you walk into the greenhouse.”

Mr. Nester invited student participants to help create different circuits, inviting first one student to connect to a plant, then two; eventually, a much larger circuit was formed by an entire class holding hands with one another and then touching the plant. The music generated reflected the biorhythms of each member of the class as well as the plants.

The device works, in part, in the same way that a human lie detector does, measuring the “galvanic skin response” of a plant’s leaves. The device also measures the plant’s glutamate receptors.

“The design of the installation was inspired by the spirit of play and exploration that permeates all aspects of the curriculum and educational philosophy of St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s,” said Mr. Nester, “and to combine various disciplines within the school.”