Damanhur is an eco-spiritual community in the foothills of the Italian Alps that has become well-known for the Temples of Humankind, a complex of eight halls richly decorated with paintings, mosaïcs, sculpture and glass. It describes itself as ‘a laboratory for the future of humankind.’
In 1976, shortly after the conception of the community, its members started to experiment with creative approaches to plant communication. Their work was inspired by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins’ seminal 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants. At Damanhur, it was discovered that plants could be allowed to create sounds by rigging up an electronic biofeedback box to a synthesiser. If one electrode is clipped to a leaf and the other to the soil, a plant is capable of generating its own sound by adjusting the voltage difference across the two points.
As a result of a partnership with Damanhur, the Music of the Plants reached the Crystal Castle in late 2014. Three days a week, on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, plant performances are held from 1.30pm-2pm, and take place in a small hall with Tibetan Thangka images hung on the walls, featuring various deities. I attended a performance, together with about thirty other curious visitors.
Before starting, we join in a meditation. The plants are introduced by name: Sia, Gordy, Prince, Madonna, Travis, Confucius, and Scarlet. Experimenters have found that, using the biofeedback system, plants can be trained to generate music (today referred to as ‘singing’.) When plants begin singing for the first time, they are developing self-awareness and experimenting, and as they grow more confident they do more singing.
Alternatively, if plants are even left in close proximity to one another, it was discovered that knowledge of how to make sound is somehow automatically transmitted between them. Of today’s group, Sia is the ‘mother plant’ who transferred her musical expertise to the others through this mechanism.
It’s fairly obvious that, given the opportunity to express themselves, plants will come up with sounds that transcend the straightjacket of human-conceived musical genres, and which could be described as stylistically indeterminate, with gaps and pauses a natural part of the mix. Sia, a peacock plant or Calathea, is rigged up first, and the equipment is switched on. There is silence for a while, followed by one note, followed by some more silence. Then the music tentatively starts. It reminds me a little of Brian Eno’s 1/1 on ambient work Music for Airports, but with more stopping and starting. After a while, Sia is disconnected and Scarlet (a Cordyline) takes her place. Following a slow start, her music starts to take shape. Madonna, a peace lily with green fronds, plays last and is noticeably more forthcoming.
Working with the plants for more than a year at the Crystal Castle has led to a number of observations. Plants can be considered to have different ‘personalities’, leading each one to sing in a slightly different way. Succulents are among the most expressive.
Their approach to singing varies a lot; sometimes they are reticent, sometimes they are engaged in what could be described as sleep patterns, and sometimes they don’t sing at all. Whistling and talking to them encourages them to sing. The weather plays a role too, and hot days discourage singing activity unless they are sprayed with water. Like people, plants seem to respond best when there is a lack of pressure to perform, and prefer not to be filmed.
In another British experiment involving an interface between plants and modern technology, a plant was kept indoors while allowed to control a motorised vehicle. Over time, it was observed that the plant would make its way to the window with the most incoming sun.
Some of the interactions between plants and between plants and humans are remarkable. A few years ago, I visited Damanhur in sub-zero temperatures, and witnessed a demonstration of plant music in a small hexagonal wooden house located in a wintry chestnut and walnut forest.
At the end, we were invited to tune into the plant, at which point it suspended making its regular music, and shifted to a noticeable series of musical forms, each starting with a low note and steadily going a long way up the musical range before starting again at the bottom of the register.
Plants wired up together in proximity for concerts have been observed to take turns following melodies of a few notes, in a call-and-response interaction. Combined human and plant concerts have taken place in Damanhur, where Sono King from the Crystal Castle was deeply moved at seeing a female violinist playing a phrase to an avocado tree, which then played it back to her. This experience inspired Sono to introduce plant music to Australia.
Compared to plant music, tree music is more complex, and features more notes. Interestingly, tree music does not isolate the tree alone, and also tunes into the roots of nearby plants.
Cutting-edge research is scientifically confirming new and surprisingly ways in which plants and humans interact. In one recent example, plants making music in the vicinity of people have been found to generate a human release of oxytocin, often referred to as ‘the love hormone.’ This in turn prompts an enhanced love of nature by people, and increases the likelihood of its stewardship and protection.
If you are visiting The Crystal Castle, remember that residents of Byron, Tweed, Ballina and Lismore council areas receive discounted admission.
Check out the Crystal Castle labyrinth here.