This is a very captivating story that involves a rare cross roads in which nature, music, and cutting edge technology meet. And not just nature in general but the plant we humans rely on for our oxygen reliant existence.
Have you ever seen the year rings within a tree, created as each ages throughout the years, on a stump or cross section of a trunk of a tree and thought – well gee, that kinda looks like a record… Well if so, you were not alone. Bartholomäus Traubeck is a visual artist and graphic designer, and he set out to make natural visuals into audio. The result is a an evocative and enchanting “recording” of a tree’s year rings, personified through the sounds of a grand piano As he said in a great interview with Joe Patitucci on DataGarden.org, “It was really interesting for me to have this visual representation of time and then translate it back into a song which it wouldn’t originally be.”
On his album ‘Years’, which you can stream above (and purchase at his Bandcamp page digitally, or on vinyl here), you will hear different “recordings” from different trees, including Spruce, Ash, Oak, Maple, Alder, Walnut, and Beech. The recordings are completely hypnotic. It’s almost bewitching to think you are able to take in the information inherent within a tree’s rings and make it into audio – essentially allowing you to not only get a glimpse into the self-evident, sense-jumping beauty inherent within nature, but you also end up feeling like you are allowed a glimpse into each tree’s life (and in some peculiar way their personalities as well). Of course it’s each tree’s life in reverse, as the inner rings are from when the plant was youngest. You will hear the sounds become more hectic and excited as you reach the earlier part of the plant’s life. You will also notice differences inherent between the different types of wood. How you interpret those distinctions is up to you. This author would like to know more about the differences in these trees before making any observations about the contrasts from song to song, but it sure is interesting just to take them in!
But how is all this actually possible?
I will attempt to summarize how this process works after reading numerous articles and the aforementioned interview with the creator. He has a modified turntable, but instead of a needle it has a Play Station camera as it’s pickup. The camera/pickup then moves through the circular cross section of the tree at a standard rate, just as any record player does. The camera takes microscopically small samples of the year rings of the tree as it spins. Then, by some very interesting programming, these visuals are translated into sound.
Finding the correct programming, not surprisingly, wasn’t a simple process. If you have the camera pick up differences in brightness it won’t then relate much to the year rings, as you can imagine they don’t occur in perfect circles. Plus, as Bartholomäus explains, it doesn’t provide enough data either. He then thought of sonifying the image, like any of us could if we switched the analog video and audio cables on our receivers. But, as the camera he needed to use provides a digital image composed as pixels, it doesn’t translate into analog sonic information in any intuitive way. As he explains it, “I just failed at that and I decided to make a generative sound machine that is being interpreted by the year rings.”
As the camera/pickup moves at a set rate in a perfect circle (or almost perfect, as it slightly spirals inward of course), and the year rings are not perfect circles at all, he made it so that whenever a tree ring is in the field of view of the camera it releases an “event” aka – data that can easily be converted into audio.
But how is this data supposed to become sound? Again, to quote Bartholomäus, “I set a rule-set for the compositions by programming and building this machine which has some kind of internal rules of how it works so it can’t just produce any sound but then again the composition is actually then being made by the tree’s data, which is not really random. Some people would say it is random but I think it’s not because it has a very special structure and follows certain rules that derive from other systems, like ecological systems. But there is always a rule-set to find in there.”
What are the basic “rules” behind how the year rings are analyzed? Basically he took into account the rings’ visual strength (like as from light to dark), the texture (from light to strong), the thickness, as well as rate of growth. It is this data that then is the input for a generative process that outputs a musical sound wave. The only thing left is to give the sounds a certain timbre, or musical identity. Timbre is “the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity”. It is what allows for us to discern the difference between two different instruments playing the same note / predominant frequency. The timbre that Bartholomäus went with was that of a grand piano.
Why the piano? As he states, “I felt that it would make sense to use the piano because, first of all, a piano is something you are very used to and it has a very long tradition. The piano itself always sounds the same for hundreds of years, probably now it’s been the way it’s played that’s always different. Second of all, the piano has a certain range of tones and there are no tones in between. In a regular piano, there are 88 keys, so this helped me make it a little more pleasant. Since there is no actual representation for the sound of wood, I guess, because there is no real sound of wood, I would say. I thought, I could practically use anything. It doesn’t need to be some abstract sine wave or modulation of something. And I looked into piano samples and it sounded good. It’s an instrument that you’re really used to, being socialized in a Western country. It made sense somehow.”
I agree, it does completely make sense. Take a moment to watch the video below to see how this incredible sonic experience takes place.
Thank you to Bartholomäus for making us take pause and experience the most beautiful architect there is, mother nature, through music.
Written by Sean Brna
OurVinyl | Editor
The interview with Bartholomäus on DataGarden.org can be found here.
To visit Bartholomäus’ and learn more about this project and his work in general click here.