Tim Collins & Reiko Goto with Chris Malc - PLEIN AIR - Silva Datum Musica [Gruenrekorder - 2019]Gruenrekorder are a label with a reputation for bringing truly novel experiences in sound to the listening public and PLEIN AIR: Silva Datum Musica is no exception. It's ostensibly a multidisciplinary project bringing together artists Tim Collins and Reiko Goto with sound programmer Chris Malcolm to create an interface to "initiate an ethical consideration of trees, using sound to focus the attention and the imagination". This approach has been refined to a point where the whole "performance" is centred on a single leaf where sensors measure the rates of photosynthesis, transpiration and other plant biochemical processes. The data from those sensors is then manipulated and transposed by Malcolm into composed sound. The four pieces on side A of this handsomely presented vinyl were recorded live in Glasgow, Scotland and the side-long piece of side B in Cologne.
From the extensive sleeve notes which accompany the release we can immediately see the collision of approaches that went into the production of this sound-art/scientific/musical project. Producer Georg Dietzler emphasises the technological triumph of PLEIN AIR, which "opens up rigorous sensor data to an immediate and intuitive experience through sound". Artists Goto and Collins have a more lofty ideal, connecting the rendering of these biochemical processes in sound with an ethical imperative. For the artists, that we can now "hear" the sound of a tree breathing opens up new ethical considerations about the role of trees in our environment and even their place as a condition of the public realm.
Prefaced by such weighty thoughts the sound of Silva Datum Musica comes as something of a surprise. The record's opener Alder rather creeps out of the speakers with creaking tones, distant minimal percussion and what could be the ticking and popping of a detuned radio or other analogue device. At first listen what is heard could not be further from the sylvan revelation promised by the notes and instead could have feasibly come from the vaults of the GRM. The main tonal element sounds somewhere between an organ and a hurdy-gurdy, the expansions and contractions of which could perhaps give us a trace of the experience of vegetative breathing. In effect it actually sounds more like a modernist take on the organ fugue. Oak is all swaying, weaving repetitions of phrases, again with the background percussion, which, scarcely keeping to any known rhythm, adds to the distinctly alien funereal quality of the music.
There is perhaps an obvious disconnect in these pieces. They were all performed live and as the notes make clear, the interaction of the environment with the apparatus is an integral part of the performance, as light, shade and even air content affect the output of the plant's biochemical signals. The other disconnect is the overtly mechanical nature of the sounds, both in compositional and purely sonic terms. It sounds like music produced by a machine not by an organic entity and if it were not for the extensive information given in the notes you would think this were a mid 20th century experiment in automatic or process music.
The 26 minutes piece Pear which takes up side B is more successful in suggesting something living beyond the algorithmic interpretation of data. The lilting organ tones are replaced by lively, almost twittering electronic harmonics which despite sounding even more synthetic than the organ seem to have additional life to them. There's also more going on with the percussion which tinkers along behind a slowly bobbing bass harmonic which could almost be produced by the rubbing of strings. Every couple of minutes the whole piece seems to shift key adding another dimension of movement that was lacking on the Glasgow pieces. Although the sleeve notes give ample details about the ideas behind the project and the source data, there is little about what software or compositional processes are being used to convert that data into sound. Nevertheless over an extended time period the music has an undeniably unique and strangely hypnotic quality, certainly justifying the producer's comparisons with minimal music.
But despite the artist's best intentions there is little here that leads me to an ethical revelation about the nature of trees and plants. If anything the triumph of technological innovation that makes PLEIN AIR possible also alienates the listener from the simple experience of being close to nature. This would appear to be a blind spot in the artist's imagination as it takes only the most cursory survey to recognise that it is through technological mediation that our experience of the nature has been so disastrously transformed in the modern period. Perhaps, rather than attempting to produce an ethical imperative towards nature by placing technology between us and it, we'd be better off simply taking a walk in the woods.