Music For Plants Is Real (Even If The Science Isn’t)

June 21, 2019

At the dawn of the 1970s, Mort Garson installed a Moog synthesizer in his Laurel Canyon home studio. In those early days of Moogs, the modular synthesizer was a massive piece of equipment — a dizzying wall of knobs and inputs. “It looked like a switchboard from the 1940s,” Garson’s daughter Day Darmet remembers. “It was just huge, with all these wires. My mom and I thought that he had really lost it.”

Garson self-released the album Mother Earth’s Plantasia in 1976. He used his Moog to create the suitably groovy vibe of each of its 10 instrumental tracks. “Concerto for Philodendron & Pothos” twinkles like the first stars to emerge after a sunset. “Symphony for a Spider Plant” bubbles with wonder. “A Mellow Mood for Maidenhair” bears traces of a psychedelic awakening. But the stated audience of this strange but soothing music was not people. It was for plants.

Befitting its esoteric origins, Plantasia was only sold at the Mother Earth plant store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, or it came for free if you ordered a Simmons mattress from Sears. Plantasia‘s cheeky liner notes were written by Mother Earth’s owners, Lynn and Joel Rapp, who were members of the TV industry before they turned to selling ferns and ficuses. In the description for the title song, they told an apocryphal tale: “[A] professor took three identical sets of plants and put them in three rooms under identical growing conditions. In the first room, he played only classical music and those plants thrived; in the second room, he played only rock music and those plants thrived; in the third room he played only the news. Those plants died. Let that one grow on you while you listen … .”

Though it wasn’t the first album touted as being for plants, collectors have been on the lookout for copies of Plantasia for decades. In recent years its desirability has only increased. Records and CDs have been bootlegged and the audio has been uploaded to YouTube without permission. Original vinyl copies get posted on the resale site Discogs for hundreds of dollars. But now, Plantasia has finally gotten an official rerelease by the Brooklyn-based Sacred Bones Records, with streaming services picking it up this spring and physical copies arriving today.

Sacred Bones owner Caleb Braaten first heard Plantasia in the early 2000s, when he was working at the record store Twist & Shout in Denver. A coworker told him about a cheap copy in the used bin, since he knew Braaten was into old, weird electronic records, like Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange. The appeal of Plantasia was instantaneous for him. “There’s something about it: It hits these nostalgic sensors in your brain that make it feel so warm and familiar, but it’s kind of from another planet at the same time,” Braaten says.

Plantasia arrived three years after the release of Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s book The Secret Life of Plants, which appeared on The New York Times‘ bestselling nonfiction list amongst titles like The Joy of Sex and How to Be Your Own Best Friend. In The Secret Life of Plants, Tompkins and Bird recounted experiments conducted around the planet that supposedly proved that plants were far more complex and cosmically attuned beings than most humans imagined. One of its central claims was that the health and productivity of plants could be affected not only by playing music for them, but by what kind of music you played for them.

With this notion vibrating through the consciousness, artists began making compositions designed specifically for plants, in tribute to plants, or in collaboration with plants. Prolific French composer Roger Roger released the electronic-classical hybrid De la Musique et des Secrets pour Enchanter vos Plantes (Music and Secrets to Enchant Your Plants). Even Stevie Wonder embraced these ideas at the end of his transcendent run of albums in the 1970s, resulting in Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, his double-disc soundtrack for the documentary film version of Tompkins and Bird’s book. Solange is a noted fan of Wonder’s collection, and during a recent conversation that streamed on Apple Music, she called her latest album, When I Get Home, “[A] tribute to that record and what it did for me.”

Though Garson’s album came out before Wonder’s, his background didn’t necessarily indicate he’d be the type of guy to embrace this kind of new age thinking. Garson wasn’t from a musical family — his parents bought a baby grand piano and installed it in their New York City house’s living room just for decoration. But Garson showed an early natural ability on the instrument, and later, all instruments. He graduated from Juilliard before serving in World World II, and then entered the music business. After Ruby and the Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come,” a song he co-wrote, knocked The Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man” from the top of Billboard‘s singles chart in 1963, Garson moved his family to Los Angeles. There he arranged songs for decidedly square artists like Doris Day and Mel Tormé. The plaintive strings on Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” are his. He made songs for commercials and game shows, and used a Moog to create a piece that soundtracked the first TV footage of the Apollo 11 crew walking on the moon.

As the 1960s got more far out, so did his output. He composed the music for The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds, an album conceptualized by Elektra Records owner Jac Holzman where each of the 12 songs was dedicated to a different astrological sign. (DJ Shadow used a snatch of the track about Cancer for his 1996 album Entroducing……) He put together a goofball retelling of The Wizard of Oz called The Wozard of Iz. (The Avalanches sampled it and used its name on their 2016 return, Wildflower.) As Garson’s two children entered adulthood, he turned to his Moog to indulge his even deeper experimental tendencies, first with a dark conceptual piece called Black Mass under the name Lucifer, and then the breezier Mother Earth’s Plantasia.

Though the Secret Life of Plants book found believers among a growing movement of people who’d embraced the green revolution or were dabbling in mysticism, Garson’s daughter thinks he was more inspired by his wife, Peggy, an avid gardener who taught her children about humans’ connection to the natural world long before such thinking became trendy. Still, Darmet acknowledges that Plantasia was probably more of a thought exercise for her father, rather than an actual attempt to make music for the benefit of plants. “I don’t think he sat and put a plant in front of him while he was creating the music and measured it every day to see if it was growing an inch or so,” she says. “I think it was purely conceptual.”

Even if Wonder was the more popular figure, his Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants may be an even stranger listen than Plantasia. Wonder spent the 1970s finding the glories of what pop music could be with albums like Talking Book and Innervisions (often with the help of his own Moog). After ending his prolific run with the 1976 double-album masterwork Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder didn’t put out new music under own name until his Plants soundtrack arrived at the end of ’79.

Listeners were largely flummoxed by it, as Wonder narrated a song from the perspective of a bug caught in the jaws of a Venus flytrap and sang a tender love ballad to a literal black orchid. It features vocals in Japanese and Mali’s Bambara language. Many of the tracks are instrumental. For the listener, it often feels as though Wonder used this album to totally indulge himself creatively. As with many superstars’ “misunderstood” albums of the period, there are now those who champion Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants for its bold choices and lack of pandering. Others would still rather hum “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to their petunias.

Over time, most of the experiments referenced in The Secret Life of Plants book were discredited. They weren’t designed to rule out other explanations that were equally plausible and their results couldn’t be replicated by other researchers. Nowadays, most academics regard the book as pseudoscience. “We know that [plants] have all the same kind of senses we do, but they don’t have specialized organs for them,” explains Heidi Appel, a plant biologist and professor at the University of Toledo. “People always underestimate plants at one level, because they aren’t like us, and yet our propensity to anthropomorphize everything — to project the way we see the world, we view the world, we think about the world — on other things that are not human means that we also have this ability to overestimate what plants can do.”

Appel’s own work with University of Missouri professor Rex Cocroft showed that an Arabidopsis thaliana plant indeed produces more chemical defenses when it hears the sound of a munching caterpillar, but that doesn’t mean it feels any kind of way about it. “The premise that plants communicate within themselves with chemicals and electrical signalling has been well demonstrated now. It’s just that they don’t have emotions,” she says.

Still, in recent years, a new generation of artists, many with connections to the ambient electronic music community, have embraced the idea of making music in highly specialized ways to foster a connection with plants. Among them is Kurt Attard of Australia’s Brainwave Power Music, whose YouTube channel has over half a million subscribers. He used “binaural beats and isochronic tones” for several videos aimed towards plants; combined they currently have over 800 thousand plays. In Germany, B. Ashra’s Music for Growing was made specifically for nurturing hemp plants by using what he calls THC’s “molecular frequency” of 10.77 Hz. David Edren of Belgium was inspired directly by Garson’s Plantasia when he made Music for Mimosa Pudica & Codariocalyx, a sprightly minimalist project dedicated to a pair of houseplants he kept in his home. “The album invoked an extra layer of focus in my life and work,” says Edren, “which is gentleness and positiveness towards all beings around us.”

Others have figured out how to get the plants themselves to create new sounds. Data Garden was started as a zero-waste record label, but its founders soon realized they were generating the most interest with the installations they would set up at festivals and museums where plants were connected to custom-made hardware to generate harmonious tones. This Venice, Los Angeles-based duo of Joe Patitucci and Jon Shapiro developed (and sell) a device called the MIDI Sprout that translates plants’ electrical impulses into musical notes.

“Sometimes I would hear people talk about accessing this creative force of the universe while they’re playing an instrument; it’s just like the universe is flowing through them,” Patitucci says. “I never had that ability with an instrument, but I felt like I could really allow the universe to express itself through my music by designing a system to allow the universe to express itself through plants.”

As the planet faces impending ecological crises, plants are seen as one of our greatest allies to combat climate change. After years of mistreatment, many artists may feel like it’s time to normalize relations between humankind or plant life, or at least do something to foster a greater bond. “We’re at this pivotal moment where people are understanding that the only way to come back into harmony with our environment is to realize that we’re not separate from it,” Patitucci says.

This renewed interest in plant-based music also comes at the same time that the houseplant industry is booming. To capitalize on this demand, there are entire side industries of plant management apps and plant delivery services for a new generation of obsessive plant owners. Everyone has their own way of coping with possible cataclysmic doom. “In Brooklyn where I live, there’s a f****** new plant store on every corner. It’s the new coffee shop,” says Sacred Bones’ Braaten, who admits that he, too, loves gardening.

Appel recognizes and appreciates the creativity of plant-based music. While she notes that all the emotional work is one-sided, that doesn’t mean the plants won’t be rewarded from this attention. “Forming connections with plants or any other kind of living thing is very beneficial to humans. Creating that atmosphere that makes the human more relaxed, creative, productive — all the things that we know music can do for us — is great,” she says. “[And] if we connect with other organisms, we take care of them better. So they may even grow better — not because of music, but because of our sense of connection to them.”

Mort Garson, who died in 2008, never made another album about plants after Mother Earth’s Plantasia. With less interest in doing commercial projects, he stopped getting offers for TV game show intros or exploitation film soundtracks. He sold his Moog by the end of the ’70s, but he happily kept following his own inspirations. He wrote a musical about Marilyn Monroe that opened in London in 1983, and after he moved to San Francisco, he created an operetta about the city’s neighborhoods. Braaten has been sorting out the legal rights to Garson’s music for about four years now, and Plantasia is the first of several reissues of his music that Sacred Bones has planned. Meanwhile the plants of the world, for now, keep growing.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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