If the Ents in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” saga did powerlifting to keep in shape for herding trees, their playlists would sound something like this.
This morning a friend shared a link to a clip from Austrian media artist Bartholomäus Traubeck’s 2011 album “Years”, which uses tree rings like the grooves on a record to create sound. Arborial stars appearing on the album include Maple, Oak, and Walnut. The video in this clip is particularly interesting, because we get to see part of the process that’s involved in converting the growth rings of these trees to music. A beam of light “reads” the rings in the rotating wood grain slices, which are then fed into a computer and translated into sound, in this case that of a piano.
The track featured in the clip, from the growth rings of an Ash, has some serious depth. It reminds me a great deal of the work of the Norwegian Romantic era composer, Edward Grieg (1843-1907). Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor is easily in the Top 5 of my favorite classical music pieces, and even if you’re not a fan of classical music, chances are you’d recognize some of the compositions that form his “Peer Gynt” suite, such as “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, which shows up in everything from films an television shows, to cartoons and commercials. In this piece there’s a similarity of unexpected chord combinations, a sense of dark water illuminated by occasional bursts of sunlight above, like floating through a Scandinavian fjord.
Admittedly, Herr Traubeck’s device isn’t actually playing the wood disc, reading the grooves of recorded sound like you would a vinyl record. Instead, the computer is creating an interpretation, based on what indications are programmed into it. Yet I don’t find it any the less remarkable, for that fact, and the use of advanced technology to bring about such music is truly remarkable.
Of course this isn’t the first time that modern science and music have come together to explore something new. There is for example the rather odd, highly theoretical world of archaeoacoustics, which got going in the 1960’s; chances are you may have come across some of their theories before in the entertainment world. This corner of the research community theorizes that objects like ancient pots could be played using a phonograph needle, in order to “hear” recordings of people who were making the pot at the time of its creation. I’ll leave that for others to investigate more fully.
In the meantime then, enjoy this heavy lifting music for tree herders. And who knows? Perhaps other objects you come across every day might be worth trying out for sound, as well.