Eavesdropping on the Secret Music of Plants

Fenez’s interface. (Photo by Roc Morin)

Mélodie Fenez began by poking the naked ends of wires into the leaves of the plants that fill her Berlin apartment. The French musician handed me a set a headphones that led back to the control panel beneath her fingers. The panel is a children’s toy with pictures of farm animals that had once made barnyard sounds. Fenez had hacked it into an interface between the plants and herself. With a deft hand on the buttons and a thousand-yard stare, she began to play. Otherworldly clicks, whistles, and wails filled my ears.

After the performance, I talked with Fenez about the nature of her music.

Where does the sound come from exactly?

We all have a frequency. You could plug an oscillator into anything that is alive and it would make a sound. If I were making holes in myself and plugging in an oscillator, it would translate the frequency within me into sound. That’s what I’m doing with these plants.

What do you mean when you talk about living things having frequencies?

Well, we know that plants communicate with each other through electronic impulses, so that’s what I’m tapping into.

And, different plants have different sounds?

Right. Like this Hibiscus, for instance, it’s a really complex sound. It’s deeper. And, this one — we call it Misery in French because it can grow anywhere — this one makes a more high-pitched tone.

Are you able to tune them?

My only way of working on the sounds is how I plug in the oscillators. If I plug them into the same leaf, I’ll have a sound that is way more high-pitched than if I plug them into different leaves.

So when, I hear the sounds change in your music, is that you switching between plants to form the notes?

And, also combining sounds. When they come together, that brings something more. But, it’s very sensitive. Even breathing can create enough movement to lose it. I have to be very concentrated.

Do the plants themselves react to being played?

Eventually, they stop making sound and I have to plug the wire in elsewhere.

Why do they do that?

Well, the main predators of plants are worms and little insects that eat them. I’m guessing that the plants think the wires are insects, and they send this acid to get rid of the insect. I think that cuts the signal. They also signal the danger to each other through the air.

I read about an experiment where someone would come into a room and mutilate a plant and then when that specific person would return, the other plants in the room would create some kind of a sound that’s too high-pitched for humans to hear…

I read about that actually. I read that the plant could actually remember who harmed it. Do you think they’re already in defense mode when they see me?

Well, they seem to all be leaning towards you, so that’s not a bad sign — unless you turned them that way yourself?

I did actually! I have say, at first when I read about how plants defend themselves, I was like “Oh my god, they react just like me when I’m attacked!” They send out a signal and block all communication. I could really relate to that. I thought, “Do they feel what I feel when I’m attacked?” That’s really awful. So, for a while I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” But, when I read more, I learned that the hormone that they send when they’re attacked is also the one that makes them grow. A week or two after I’ve played a plant, it makes leaves and flowers like crazy.

Do you feel that you’re forming relationships with the plants?

Totally.

What are those relationships like?

I check on them very often, and I can see what they need. Really. I just look at the leaves and I’m like, “Ut-oh, you had too much sun.” And this one, gets thirsty very easily, very often. And this one is really wild. If you just cut it and put it in a glass of water, it will make roots and grow. It’s really made to invade the world. It never makes flowers until the day it dies. When it makes flowers, it means that it has no resources anymore and you can do nothing for it — it’s dying. It’s just making flowers to spread around seeds to continue invading the world.

So, they have personalities.

They really do. I talk with them.

What do you say?

I thank them when they have flowers, and I ask for forgiveness when I’ve not been nice. And yeah, I always ask them what they want.

Do they respond back to you in some way?

Yeah, in the way their leaves look — the way they stand. Things like that. I mean I pay a lot of attention to the scars and the leaves, and sometimes the scars get bigger and the leaf dies. Even if the rest of the plant is alive, I’m like, “No, I’m not playing you, because this is really harming you.” But I can really relate to the way they react. I mean, if I was doing this with animals, nobody would want to hear about it or they would insult me. But, plants are alive too.

They don’t have as good of a lobby as the animal lobby.

Yeah, they need a celebrity.

The way you talk about your plants really makes me feel differently about them. I feel their presence more, and view them almost as characters in this room.

Oh, that’s great! Thank you. That’s what I want to do, so I’m very happy to hear that it’s happening. I feel like they’re my really good friends. You know how with a really good friend you don’t have to talk or interact? You can just be in the same room and still there is stuff happening. That’s kind of how it is with me and the plants.