MIDI Sprout Helps Plants Play Music

Jul 23, 2014

Credit photo by Kelly Tunney

Many of us talk to our houseplants, or play music for them.  But what if the plants could play music for us?  Actually, they can, thanks to a gadget called the “MIDI Sprout.”

Sam Cusumano, an audio engineer and experimental sound artists from Philadelphia, is the creator of that device. He paid a recent visit to Schlow Library in State College, and stopped by WPSU’s studios to talk about the MIDI sprout, and show us how it works.  We brought a big leafy plant to the studio for the demonstration.

“People really like philodendrons,” Cusumano says, checking out the plant.  “I don’t know why.  I guess because they’re this charismatic macro-flora.  They’re big and their green and they purify the air.  So this will work great.”

The philodendron looks nice.  But it looks, to us humans, as if it’s just

sitting there, doing nothing.  Cusumano wants us to let us experience what’s going on inside of a plant, moment to moment.  That’s why he invented the “MIDI Sprout”. It’s a gadget that translates biological data from a plant into musical notes.

Cusumano starts to set up the MDI sprout by placing a pair of electrodes on the leaves of our plant.

“I use medical electrodes,” he explains. “The same kind of electrodes that you would have for an EKG machine.  And I use these to pick up fluctuating currents. You see on the bottom here, it’s just this sticky gel.”

Cusumano attaches two white pads, with electrodes mounted on them, to two different leaves of the philodendron.

“I like to use the same branch of the plant, just in order to get the most conductivity that we can possibly read.  You can actually attach the electrodes to any leaf of a plant, or the same leaf, and it will still give us results.”

The electrodes on the plant are connected by wires to a little white box, which contains the Midi Sprout device.

“And what that does is it measures electrical conductance across the surface of the leaf,” Cusumano explains.  “It’s the same kind of circuit as a simple lie-detector circuit.”

With a lie detector, he says, you’d put two electrodes on the surface of a person’s skin, and measure the level of conductance across the skin.

“The plants, they’re always lying!,” Cusumano quips with a laugh.  “That was one of our first jokes with it.”

Cusumano says the MIDI sprout takes the output from the electrodes on the plant and converts it into MIDI notes.

“MIDI is a musical instrument digital interface.  And it allows information to be transferred from one digital synthesizer to another, or to a computer.”

The MIDI sprout measures changes in electrical current across the plant leaf and translates the data into musical notes. The experts call that process “biodata sonification.” He plugs the device into an I-pad, which has a variety of synthesizer software he uses to produce the sounds he chooses to represent changes in the plant’s biodata.

“I’ve set (it) up so there’s four different instruments.  One is the vibes, one is a synth bass, I have a drum kit, and then also a bowed bell sound.  Now these are the standard MIDI sounds. But together I think it generates a pretty cool atmosphere.  So now, we’ll turn him on.”

The “music”, if you can call it that, starts to play. It sounds like a random collection of synthesizer sounds, with no particular pattern emerging, as we’d expect in a musical composition.

“I often call it MIDI noise”, Cusumano says. If you’re expecting a rhythm or a beat to flow out of the plant, that’s our human expectation and desire.”

And along with the sounds, there’s even a mini light show, from a few colored lights inside the MIDI sprout box.

“So what we have going on on the sprout here,” he explains, “The LED’s illuminate each time a change is detected. And what I mean by a change is a fluctuation in the conductance across the leaf.  I sample the different current amounts that are going through the leaf.  And then when I find a change, I push out a note in proportion to that change.”

Well, actually, it’s an algorithm Cusumano has programmed into the MIDI sprout device that’s doing all that “pushing” for him.  The algorithm assigns the MIDI notes to represent moment-to-moment changes in the plant’s conductivity.

“So when there’s no notes, there’s no change being detected.  One of the fun aspects of this project is when the plant is not making any sound at all.  I have a single – “ He stops talking and we both laugh at this point, because the plant’s “music” has just stopped, as if right on cue.

“Now you notice, everything happened real great when I first put it on”, he says.  But now there’s nothing going on.  The plant doesn’t necessarily play on cue.  And that’s one of the more dynamic aspects of working on this project.”

The plant remains silent, so Cusumano moves one of the two electrodes to a different leaf.

“When was the last time he was watered?”, Cusumano jokes.

When the electrode is moved to a new leaf, the musical notes start up again.

Cusumano reflects on one of the more compelling aspects of this project: that it seems to offer a way to “interact” with plants.

“People enjoy this so much as a sense of feedback: when they’re present, and they’re sitting with the plant, and it seems to be reacting to them. When we’ve had plants set-up in a large space, and different people walk through, the plants seem to react to different people as they enter the space.”

Cusumano often sets up the MIDI sprout with plants in public spaces, as a sort of interactive exhibit.

“We did a quartet, where four plants were placed around the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  And as people walked through, they experienced the changes in sound.  Each plant was associated with a synthesizer: the philodendron had a bass.  And the schefflera had a lead synthesizer sound.  And the money plant worked all the crazy effects.”

At one point during the day, Cusumano says, the plants had calmed down and were making very little sound, when a woman walked into the exhibit space.

“And we see her, and she is this powerful, beautiful, young pregnant woman. She walks into the room, and all of a sudden, everything changes.  The sounds were like nothing we had expected.  We programmed these sounds. We kind of knew where the base would go.  The bass was super high-pitched.  All of the high lead lines were super low-pitched.  The effects were sweeping all around.  I graph these changes on my I-pad.  I like to show people at different installations.  All of the readings were all over the place.  It was really amazing.”

In that case, a particular person’s presence seemed to spur the plants to make more music.  But sometimes, Cusumano suggests, maybe you need the right plant to make musical magic happen.

“We have a plant that we work with a lot at home we named Carl. And a lot of times when we go places we try to bring Carl with us since he’s used to the interface, we like to say, and we know how to work with him.  Cause you never know, sometimes a strange plant might not be into it,” he says, with a laugh.

Cusumano says the MIDI Sprout was first inspired by the world of art.  He created a forerunner of the device when a friend of his, named john Shapiro asked him for help with a project.

“He wanted to have a piano player, playing a piano,” he recalls,”and then have another person, standing behind that piano player, using the piano player as an instrument. A piano player… player?”

So Cusumano, took on the challenge.

“I found a simple circuit: that was a lie detector.  And we set it up.  And so we had a piano player player, playing a piano player while playing a piano.”

He says the circuit worked very well in the concert.

“Later I was approached by Data Garden, who is a media arts group.  My good friend Joe Pattatucci, their director said ‘Sam, can you find a way to connect plants to synthisizers, to make music?.’ And I said ‘Of course, we should be able to figure that out.’”

And they did.  While the MIDI Sprout is new, Cusumano says,  what it does is not so new.

“This is well-trod territory.  In the 1950’s, people were connecting lie detectors to plants.  In the 60’s and 70’s people did all kinds of experiments: hooking up plants to, at the time, radio equipment and analogue synthesizers.  And a lot of that work, we actually feature on the Data Garden website, as history of the biodata sonification process.”

So what’s in the future for the MIDI Sprout?  Well, Cusumano and Data Garden just completed a very successful campaign on Kickstarter.

“And the purpose of the Kickstarter campaign,” Cusumano says, “was for us to be able to construct and do research to build-out this device for our use, and for our experimentation; and to also, in parallel, to have this be an open source experience for other people.”

“The goal really isn’t to make this a marketable product.  It’s really about showing people how exciting this realm is.”

Cusumano says his team is “…using that funding from the Kickstarter to reduce the cost of the components and the construction so we can put a bunch of these in interested people’s hands; put the kits out there for anyone to be able to build; have the code open source for people to continue to experiment with.  And we want to create a community and a dialogue about ‘What is this?’ ‘What could you do with it?’”

Sam Cusumano wants us all to have the tools to answer those questions – and to finally enable out plants to play music for us, too.

Learn more about MIDI Sprout on it's Kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/datagarden/midi-sprout-biodata-sonification-device

To learn more about Data Garden, visit : http://datagarden.org/

Learn more about Sam Cusumano's Electricity for Progress project here: http://www.electricityforprogress.com/