Botanical Resonance: Plants and Sounds in the Garden

Botanical Resonance: Plants and Sounds in the Garden is currently installed in the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum, which is open for visitors Tuesday–Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30pm. The exhibition content is available online through the Museum’s Twitter and Instagram pages. Please check the Museum website for updates and future online events.

All about the Exhibition

The Botanical Resonance exhibition explores how plants create and cause sounds in our natural environment and cultural arenas. Many grasses, gourds, legumes, and woods are featured that are used to create musical instruments in cultures around the world, as well as how different plants make unique sounds throughout their lifecycles in nature and in the Garden. For the species used to make instruments, many often become jeopardized and threatened in their native environments due to the increasing production and demand for the desirable plant material. The Garden’s botanists in Madagascar researched traditional Malagasy instruments made from endemic plants to add to the Garden’s collections for this exhibition, and will continue to add to these biocultural collections in the future. Familiar plants that we grow or buy in grocery stores are used to make sounds for movie and TV sound effects, called Foley art.

Botanical Resonance includes three contemporary artists who were commissioned to create artwork installations that interpret sound in several different ways: two soundwalks by Annika Kappner, an immersive quilt installation by Brooke Erin Goldstein, and an immersive sound installation by St. Louis artist Kevin Harris.

Sachs Museum Evans Gallery, featuring Botanical Resonance. Photo by Virginia Harold

To visit the exhibition virtually, please check out this tour designed by Garden Sr. Digital Media Specialist Cassidy Moody.

Understanding Plants and Soundmaking

Soundmaking is an ancient human practice and art, with the use of plants integral to music and other sounds made in cultures around the world. Sounds are made by vibrations causing soundwaves that humans sense either through their ear canals or through their bodies. These vibrations are also made by living things in many environments, including insects and animals. Ancient depictions of humans playing instruments often feature flutes made from reeds or drums fashioned from wood. The earliest extant examples of human musical instruments are flutes made from bone, as plant material decays quickly and is rarely found in archaeological excavations unless preserved in some other way (charred or sealed in hermetic environments).

Resonance comes from the Latin word resonantia meaning “to resound” or to sound out together with a loud sound. It is when one object vibrating at the same natural frequency of a second object forces that second object into vibrational motion, like when you strike a drum and the entire body of the drum (and the air inside it) vibrates. As a quality of sound, resonance is deep, full, and reverberating, and occurs in music as an intensification and enriching of a musical tone with additional vibration—as it happens in the body of an instrument. Resonance is an important quality for making instruments, with a wide variety of plants used around the world, including reeds, gourds, and trees that belong to several plant families, including Poaceae (grasses), Cucurbitaceae (gourds), and Fagaceae (legumes), among others.

Caribbean and South American instruments. Photo by Virginia Harold

Insect Vibrations: Too Hot To Sing

Too Hot To Sing is the brainchild of St. Louis University scientist Dr. Kasey Fowler-Finn and sound artist Stephen Vitiello, who first connected in 2014 over their mutual joy for experiencing the world through sound. Dr. Fowler-Finn, associate professor at St. Louis University, is an evolutionary biologist who investigates the evolution of communication in insects and arachnids. A major goal of her research is to understand how communication is affected by and adapts to changes in the environment. Too Hot to Singis a sound installation based on insect vibrations captured at the Mountain Lake Biological Station in Pembroke, Virginia. Sound artist Stephen Vitiello and Dr. Fowler-Finn recorded vibrations using surface-based devices, like an accelerometer, a laser, and a record needle. They worked across seasons to capture the sounds in different thermal conditions, ranging from cool (~60°F) to hot (~100°F). Vitiello then composed the work into four pieces, to help us experience insect communication in the face of rising global temperatures. More information and recordings of these insects can be found here.

Fowler-Finn and Vitiello recording sounds. Photo by Kasey Fowler-Finn

Understanding Sound and Music Making

Sound occurs when a substance—or the molecules that make up that substance—vibrates, and the surrounding molecules are displaced by the vibration, and the vibration moves from molecule to molecule in the form of a sound wave, similarly to when a pebble is thrown in a pond, causing ripples in every direction. Sound travels through air and water, and depending on the strength of the vibrations, we can feel these sounds in our bodies, as well as through our ears.

Pitch, or frequency, of sound is measured by how much a sound wave fluctuates, which is measured in hertz (Hz); the more fluctuations per second, the higher the frequency. Humans can hear a range from a very low 20 Hz to a very high 20,000 Hz, but those ranges change depending on age and other factors. Sound intensity is measured by loudness, or amplitude, or decibels (dB); prolonged exposure to loud sounds can be difficult for a human ear to tolerate and can cause hearing loss. The most difficult element of sound to describe is the timbre, or tone or quality of a sound; timbre depends on the form of the sound wave, which can be smooth or complex.

Plants are used to make a wide variety of instruments, including woodwinds, stringed, and percussion instruments. Woodwinds are a type of aerophone instrument, where a vibrating mass of air is used to produce the musical sound, such as flutes, clarinets and oboes, and recorders. Chordophones are stringed instruments, such as guitars, violins, cellos, and ukuleles. Idiophones are instruments of which their whole body is used to produce a sound, including being struck, shaken, or scraped; thumb pianos, maracas, shakers, and xylophones are idiophones. Drums are membranophones, in which a sound is produced by vibrating a stretched membrane, either with sticks or hands.

Violin and bow on loan from Elizabeth Moore. Photo by Virginia Harold

Global Botanical Beats

Botanical Resonance features a wide variety of musical instruments from around the globe and the plants used to make them, with specimens shared by the Garden’s Herbarium. Lenders from throughout the Garden community shared instruments from Central and South America, western Africa, Australia, and Europe. Taylor Guitars shared their work in managing forests of ebony in Cameroon where the wood is harvested to make necks and fingerboards for their world-renowned guitars, and their work with Pacific Rim Tonewoods, a company that has been supplying high quality woods to renowned guitar makers and independent luthiers for more than 35 years. These woods include koa (native to Hawai’i), figured maple, spruce, and walnut—examples of which are all on display in the exhibition.

The Garden’s William L. Brown Center team based in Madagascar also collected about a dozen handmade traditional Malagasy instruments made from different endemic plants as well as different regions in Madagascar for the exhibition; these items have been added to the Brown Center biocultural collection. We’ll be sharing more about these wonderful objects in a future blog post. The exhibition also includes the significant work the Garden botanists working in Madagascar have recently accomplished on the Precious Woods Project, focused on the native rosewood (Dalbergia) and ebony (Diospyros) species. This project will be used by the Madagascar government so that future decisions can be made on the country’s conservation or economic use of these high value woods. You can learn more about this project in a previous blog post.

Instruments on view in Botanical Resonance. Photo by Virginia Harold

Snap, Crackle, Pop! The Art of Foley

The next time you are watching a movie and a character is moving through the woods, with crackling branches underfoot, pay attention to the sounds they are making. Very likely, those were not recorded at the same time as the footage was filmed, but in a sound studio and added afterwards as sound effects. This process of making and reproducing sounds added to filmed video footage is called Foley art. Plants are regularly used to make these sounds for all types of filmed materials, including sound effects that can make us queasy to describe!

The earliest documented sound effects device was the bronteion thunder device used over 2200 years ago in ancient Greek theater, which when used, signaled the arrival of gods and goddesses. By the early 20th century, films had become a bustling industry, but they did not have soundtracks. It became regular practice for cinemas to employ an “effects man” who produced these small yet integral sounds. Sounds included, footsteps, rain, and other sounds that made the actions happening in silent films more understandable. Jack Foley was one of these early effects men. Foley was creative and athletic, and he used his diverse skills in art and his baseball-trained agility to forage in-house sound effects for silent films. The main sounds Foley produced were claps, footsteps, and background voices. Foley was always on the hunt for new sounds—when new gadgets came on the market, he quickly acquired them to broaden his prop experimentation.

Today, Foley art is used in most, if not all, major motion pictures, and it adds a depth of noticeable quality to lower-budget films. Sounds frequently requested range from classic footsteps (with differing techniques for each character and setting), doors closing and opening, rustling fabrics, crunching and manipulating plant materials, crickets chirping to unique sci-fi tracks that require layering of Foley sounds, and sometimes Foley artists’ voices.

Coffea arabica specimen from the Garden’s Herbarium. Coffee grounds are used in Foley art to create the sound of a variety of terrains characters come into contact with—it can be used to recreate the sounds of snow, dirt, and sand.

Ozark Chinquapin carries a tune

Castanea ozarkensis, or Ozark chinquapin, was to its local communities what the American Chestnut was to Southern Appalachia, providing a source of food, rot resistant hardwood, medicine, and dye. For the Creek (Muscogee) and Choctaw peoples, its month of harvest, September, was called otto woskecheh hasi, or the ‘Little Chestnut Moon.’ Formerly a large deciduous tree, the Ozark chinquapin has been devastated by the same blight that destroyed the American chestnut (Castanea dentata). The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation (OCF) shared research and objects featuring the use of this historic Missouri tree in Botanical Resonance as this wood was popularly used to make musical instruments, such as this beautiful dulcimer. The OCF is also dedicated to recording accounts of the tree and its role in communities. Based on testimonies from community members, as well as old newspaper clippings, members of the OCF have conducted experiments testing the various uses of the tree, including medicinal and other crafting uses (such as dyeing). You can learn more about what the OCF is doing to prevent the spread of the blight in a previous Garden Discover + Share post and we’ll get an update from OCF on the impact of this important tree in this region in a future post.

Ozark chinquapin dulcimer made by A.J. Hendershott. Photo by Virginia Harold.

Contemporary Art That Resonates

An important intersection to the Botanical Resonance exhibition is the contemporary installation artworks produced by three artists who were specially commissioned to interpret sound in their artworks in several different ways You’ll learn about the artists and their work in a future blog post.

European artist Annika Kappner produced two guided meditative soundwalks, Liquid Landscapes, that visitors can access as they move from the Museum around the Garden, and which are a part of her long term project Deep Planetary Sensing that seeks to engage in a conversation with the Earth through our bodies, through sensing and feeling. The soundwalks invite the listener to engage with the species inhabiting the Missouri Botanical Garden through their body as a space to connect to the feminine principle of receptivity and coexistence with other beings and matter, as a counterbalance to the drive for constant efficiency and performance in our contemporary (urban) life. You can access Path 1 here and Path 2 here and make plans to experience them when you are next visiting the Museum and the Garden.

Liquid Landscapes silk prints by Annika Kappner, left and right.

Inspired by sounds in nature, St. Louis-based artist Kevin Harris created Welcome Home Habitat, a multi-channel, immersive sound installation that recreates the acoustic habitat of several non-native plants found at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Imagined as “a gift to visiting plants”, the piece explores the complex relationship between a plant’s native acoustic habitat and its health and happiness. As humans continue to conquer and dominate the natural world, it is evident the many ways in which we use plants for our own benefit. This installation seeks to playfully correct this imbalance, giving something back to plants in the form of the soothing sounds of their native habitat, and offers a hands-on opportunity to feel/sense the vibrations of the sounds.

Welcome Home Habitat by Kevin Harris. Photo by Virginia Harold.

Brooke Erin Goldstein’s Reverberations is a quilted room installation that looks at the social and emotional lives of plants, particularly the overlooked auditory aspect of how plants collectively utilize sound to respond to stress and trauma. This work abstractly illustrates the feelings and purpose behind the sounds made by the two most common plants in our lives, grass and trees. Through the use of immersive installation, the viewer enters a bisected world half above and half below the soil’s surface. On the right, the artwork explores the screaming sound that grass makes when it is cut. The left side takes the viewer below ground level to give them a window into the symbiotic fungal system that make tree roots able to communicate, commonly known as the “wood wide web.”

Reverberations by Brooke E. Goldstein, gallery detail view. Photo by Virginia Harold.

Music and sounds play a role in understanding our space in the world and express human desires for society, including rhythm, spirituality, and communion. They are part of daily existence, and often it is plants that make or affect sounds in the landscapes humans live and move through every day. Different tree species leaves make unique sounds when ruffled by wind and breezes, and other plants create buffers to sounds and can muffle the sounds of daily hustle-and-bustle to create serenity in gardens and parks. Historic and traditional instruments used today in many cultures originated from the native plants used by Indigenous peoples around the world, who created sounds and music for ritual purposes, celebrations, personal enjoyment, and dance. Indebted thanks to all of these contributors and collaborators to the Sachs Museum’s exhibition and programs who shared their expertise, passion, and creativity on sounds, plants, and instruments for the Botanical Resonance exhibition project.

Nezka Pfeifer—Museum Curator, Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum

Grateful thanks to the sponsors of the exhibition: Nancy and Kenneth Kranzberg, The Thomas A. Kooyumjian Family Foundation, and Tony & Cindy Kooyumjian.

Artists Brooke Erin Goldstein, Kevin Harris, and Annika Kappner

Generous thanks to these contributors of research and lenders of collections and images to the exhibition: Scott Paul, Taylor Guitars; Steve McMinn and Kevin Burke of Pacific Rim Tonewoods and Siglo Tonewoods; Ric Kokotavich; Dr. Kasey Fowler-Finn, St. Louis University and Dr. Kika Tuff, Impact Media Lab; A.J. Hendershott; Eduardo Aguirre-Mazzi; Michael Nelson; Ryan Bouma; Dr. Annie Hounsokou; Thomas Jöstlein; Tzuying Huang; Cally Banham.

Many thanks to designer Michael Powell for the design expertise and Virginia Harold for installation photography. Social media planning and graphic inspiration thanks to Rogério Victor Satil Neves.

Special acknowledgments to Garden staff who shared their expertise and collections on view here: Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson, Dr. Carmen Ulloa Ulloa, Dr. Robbie Hart, Dr. Armand Randrianasolo, Carolina Romero, Aurora Prehn, Fortunat Rakotoarivony, Tefy Andriamihajarivo, Tabita Randrianarivony, Nivo Rakotoarivelo, Lucien Rasoaviety, Aina Razanatsima, Dr. Pete Lowry, Dr. George Schatz, Peter Phillipson, Heidi Schmidt, Dr. Jordan Teicher, Mary Merello, Lauren Boyle, Colin Robinson, Sally Bommarito, Mike Blomberg, Dr. Matthew Albrecht, Burgund Bassener, Cassidy Moody, Catherine Martin, Emma Rush, Linda Fiehler, Denise Trull, Elizabeth Moore, Travis Hall, Matthew Norman, Derek Lyle, Jennifer Smock, Dana Kelly, Daria McKelvey, Julie Hess, Mariel Tribby, William Desch, David Gunn, Senad Duracak, and Garden designers Ellen Flesch and Teresa McBryan.

Especial thanks to the Sachs Museum remote interns who contributed to the research and text, for the exhibition: Stefanie Hermsdorf, Alexandra Lebovitz, Chris Kitamura, Caleigh Dinger, Yumi Chung, Brianna Nielsen, Gabrielle Visco, Kristina de Greef, Josephine Grigg, Madeline Halstead, Rachel Gonzalez, Sarah Winski, Gabriel Casillas, Emily Tinglan Cai, Clara Rush, Melanie Vera, Paris Hubler, Britny Cordera, Ida Chen, Cait Mohr, Kellee Cross, and Ana Moreno.

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