Music for Moss and Mushrooms

In a previous post I explored ways to tell ‘creaturely’ stories through music and moving image.

How would this work for creatures that do not move much to the human eye? Can mosses and mushrooms, who seem so static at first glance, inspire ideas about sound and image, flow and rhythm?

Various people have thought musically about these lives. Silence and the barely perceptible are important notions. Moss expert Robin Kimmerer wrote in her book Gathering Moss:

Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.

Artist/musician John Cage was very much inspired by mushrooms:

“I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom”

He explained this in the “Music Lovers’ Field Companion” (1954). The experience of finding hidden mushrooms, was for him similar to the experience of hearing quiet sounds. And of course, there is the amazing Czech mushroom composer Václav Hálek, who has transcribed thousands of melodies straight from mushrooms.

Knights Bush, near Clutha river, New Zealand

For me, it’s important to not isolate a mushroom or a moss, but notice them in interaction with others. In my audio/video experiments I look for ways to capture rhythms that can be perceived in real time, without speeding up time like in a time-lapse. I look for spontaneous and almost accidental encounters, not trying to establish a perfect match between audio and visual. Through improvisational music and multispecies interactions (a person touching a wobbly mushroom, a spidermite walking through moss), I found a way to express something about the dynamisms of a mushroom and a patch moss.

Music, visual narratives & creatures

Visual narratives are multisensory invitations.

I’m interested in a biological synaesthesia. How to create stories about insects, trees, mosses, mushrooms, that are not just a bunch of static images for eyes alone, but also blend with textures, movements, sounds — to convey something about their expressive and dynamic lives?

One way into this is through music. There is close affinity between sounds and visual narratives, eg. as discussed for comics here and here. Sequences of images can have a rhythmic quality, and music can be visualised in many ways. Can a sound be a comic? Maybe. Sounds can certainly tell a story. Looking at visual narratives broadly, nature documentaries often use sound to create interesting illusions. Sound effects are used as if they were the real sounds of insects munching (hugely exaggerated!), or to present a seamless harmony of a sneaky melody with a sneaky lion that slowly approaches their prey. It’s tempting to see nature that way. But it’s also important to remember that they are constructs.

I’ve started recording insects and spiders around the house, and made music for them. We might not understand each other very well but we do live together — to a degree, we might even process the same indoor sounds. These are synthesizer experiments; tiny stories through silence & sound, harmony & mismatch. Music and creatures were recorded indoors: both are part of the home environment.

Adventure of a jumping spider in the kitchen and on me.

It’s not so much about finding rhythms and sounds that are a perfect harmonious match with the images. It’s more about capturing something about their expressive mystery. A way to ‘give voice’ without speech and with plenty of imperfection. After all, what seems a neat harmonious match from a human perspective, how could I possibly know if it’s anything close to a harmony from a spider perspective? The point is not to claim to understand them; I can only hint at their experiences through my own expressions. In these micro compositions there is plenty of silence and mismatch.

a weak bumblebee consumes a drop of honey, but only barely.


Sound to give ‘voice’, video to give ‘face’. And they are rather cute, no?

These sound/image narratives only begin to approach an answer to nature sound illusions. How could we present an honesty about nature constructs, a self-awareness that takes responsibility for the fantasy*?

*Philosopher Timothy Morton discusses this issue in his book Ecology without Nature.

Note: I briefly touched upon biological synaesthesia through the paintings and notes of Hilma af Klint, whose observations of ‘moist moss’ and ‘cool trees’ led to colourful works of figurative shapes (plants, shells, flowers) in combination with abstract geometries. Music provides another angle for creating a sensory & visual language to express something about creatures and humans alike.