Forest sonata: listening to the music of the trees

Orchestra of nature: artist Bartholomäus Traubeck has converted pieces of trees into music. Eric C Bryan

What is the music of trees? German artist Bartholomäus Traubeck spun slices of logs on turntables that translate their textures and annual rings into music. Traubeck calls the result Years, and I played it to my Composition Seminar to see how students responded.

The first year contingent were mightily impressed that one could play old growth trees to create music, but the later year students were singularly unimpressed, quoting examples of musical coding from Bach to John Cage and his chance procedures and much in between.

Years is an artwork/musical composition that consists of a “record player” that plays slices of wood from old trees using a tone arm that is equipped with a light scanning device in place of the traditional stylus. The circular slices from the tree are lacquered, and then rotated on a traditional turntable. The year ring data is then, as the accompanying notes tell us, “translated into music” by mapping the output data to a scale using a computer music program. In the example we hear, the scale chosen is an easily digestible minor chord related array of notes which, in tandem with the vision of the modified turntable spinning the shiny tree trunk “record”, provides a pleasant audio-visual experience. A taste of it awaits near the end of this article.

The discussion in the Composition Seminar whirled around how much control is exerted by the creator of a piece when mapping data to the musical parameters via software and hardware, with opinions covering all parts of the spectrum. The final agreement was that ultimately the ear must be the final arbiter for the music, and the eye for the visual, and that it was entirely subjective as to how one rated the piece artistically.

In my time as a composer and more recently as a teacher I have seen all kinds of natural phenomena and scientific data transformed into musical works for conventions and conferences, but very few of these have stood the test of time.

Groovy: a sliced of log spinning in Bartholomäus Traubeck’s musical artwork, Years. Bartholomäus Traubeck

The two questions that immediately come to mind are firstly, is this a true sonic representation of the visual data of the tree rings and secondly, is this a new way of constructing musical compositions?

The answer to both is no, but this need not be seen as pejorative. The artist makes it clear in the notes that “the foundation of the music is certainly found in the defined rule set of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this rule set very differently”. I would have preferred to have heard more examples using other slices to see/hear the differences generated by the patterns seen on the “records”.

On first encountering this piece my mind leapt back to my student days and the release of a recording of an early electronic composition by the American composer Charles Dodge entitled “The Earth’s Magnetic Field” subtitled “Realizations in computed electronic sound”(Nonesuch H71250-1970).

In this work Dodge took data from geophysical monitoring of the magnetic activity surrounding the Earth (the Kp index). These indices were displayed graphically and were popularly known to the researchers involved as Bartels’ musical diagrams, named after their inventor the German geophysicist Julius Bartels. Because of their resemblance to musical notation Dodge was inspired to create the piece. Dodge uses a much larger array of pitches to construct his rendering of the data: as the liner notes say, a “diatonic collection over four octaves and he "compresses the 2,920 readings for the year into eight minutes of musical time”.

Because of the musical aesthetic of the era that Dodge inhabited and the then-experimental nature of computer music, the results are far more dissonant, yet the rhythmic elements of both of these pieces share the same fate. They are erratic and do not appear to contain many aurally satisfying pulses that anchor the listener, possibly a reason for “Years” to stay in safe tonal territory. This is not too far removed from Arnold Schoenberg’s decision in his first strict twelve tone method composition, the Suite for Piano, to utilise the dissonant pitch construction but to hold it firm for his audience by placing it in a strict dance-suite form.

Schoenberg also coded his name into many compositions, but this too has a history going back to Bach and others. The simplest form of alphabetic musical coding is to use the letters as used in the scale, ABCDEFG adding S which signifies Eflat in German nomenclature and H which signifies Bnatural, the German system using B to mean Bflat.

Thus BACH is easily translated as Bflat A C Bnatural, SCH(O)E(N)BE®G becomes SCHEBEG or Eflat C Bnatural EBflat E G and many composers of all eras and persuasions have used this method and others to place coded information into their work, not all that different from using external data to drive a musical work. It is however only a starting point and for a piece to work convincingly then the editing/creative process must be brought into play to shape the various elements that make a composition speak to an audience.

Here is a taste of Years:

YEARS from Bartholomäus Traubeck on Vimeo.

Whilst being an interesting aural experiment, as a work of music Years - to my ears - falls slightly short of the mark.

Anyone for a DNA-spiral Tango?

Comments welcome below.