According to research conducted by Andrew Adamatzky, mushrooms posess their own language comprised of at least 50 “words” or repeatable patterns coded in voltage spikes sent through their mycelial networks. As NPR and Hii Magazine have reported, there is an emerging interest in converting these patterns into sound with artists such as Tarun Nayar ( @modernbiology) and companies like Music of the Plants and PlantWave leading the way. This is the new science of bio-sonification, or the use of technology to turn the natural bio-rhythms of living organisms into sounds we can hear and even enjoy. In his album "Worlding," interdisciplinary design researcher and new media artist Eryk Salvaggio sought to capture these hidden sounds by connecting an oyster mushroom to a synthesizer. We sat down for an interesting conversation about what he found.
“Worlding,” a record of mushroom test recordings, is available as a download or cassette tape at notype.com. Photo courtesy of Eryk Salvaggio.
Will: Great to see you again, old friend, and thanks for giving us some time to learn more about your album, "Worlding." When did you first become interested in mushrooms? Was there a specific event that triggered your interest?
Eryk: Mushrooms have been a metaphor for so many things for so long that I was keen to figure out what they were actually doing. I was in Australia when I heard about the Wood Wide Web — the idea that some mushroom networks actually transmit information and nutrients between plants, trees and other matter in the forest. I became really interested in whether technologies such as artificial intelligence could learn from that system.
Will: Some call the Wood Wide Web the original Internet. What is it about mushroom networks that interests you?
Eryk: Chiefly, it’s their adaptability — they can communicate and exchange with almost anything, break things down and absorb them or move them to other parts of the network. And it’s a totally decentralized being. They live without a center, just growing outward in this radically exploratory way. It is a really unique form of life. I try to understand that or put my head into that mode of being, and it contorts my preconceptions of the world in such fascinating and inspiring ways.
Will: So what does a decentralized mycelial network have to do with a synthesizer?
Eryk: This researcher, Andrew Adamatzky, published a report on fungal computing years ago, and it’s always stuck with me. Mushrooms communicate through tiny sparks of voltage, which is also how computer circuit boards work. The original, room sized systems of the 1960s were all just wires running into vacuum tubes or what have you. And while that kind of analog computer is now condensed thanks to digital technologies, the principles of analog computing are still right there in analog synthesizers.
So in theory, if you connect a mushroom to an analog synthesizer, you extend the mycelial communication network into the synth. The voltage that the mushroom uses to communicate within itself now goes into the synth and triggers the synth into responses. It’s all the same network of electricity. So once I sorted that out in theory, well, who the hell wouldn’t want to figure out what that sounded like?!
So I was very grateful to be talking with Claudia Westermann, an architect and designer, and Vinny Montag, a designer, both at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University outside of Shanghai, about a piece for a science exhibition at the University of Michigan. We decided to propose this as a sculptural work where the mushrooms could grow out of radios and generate these sonic textures through the synthesizer as they responded to the light and temperatures of the environment.
By directly applying the voltage of mushroom communication to synthesizers, the mushrooms "communicate" through electricity and sound - creating a series of dynamic yet oddly soothing pieces of music. Photo courtesy of Eryk Salvaggio.
Worlding was created as a musical component of a collaborative sculpture for the Michigan State University Museum’s 1.5 Degrees Celsius exhibition in East Lansing. It was co-created with Claudia Westermann and Vinny Montag at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Photo courtesy of Mark Sullivan / MSU.
In the sculpture, mushrooms emerge from discarded radio equipment, creating a moment of simultaneous breakdown and renewal. Photo courtesy of Claudia Westermann / XJLU
Will: I see, so the sculptures are a visual representation of the mushrooms and electronics coming together. Is this where the title of your album "Worlding" comes from?
Eryk: Worlding is this idea that worlds emerge from interactions and relationships between things — that as we encounter others, we influence and inform each other and together, a small world can reveal itself between us. And that’s important to note, too: this album is about that assemblage of myself, the mushrooms, and the synthesizer. The sounds on the record emerged from interactions between those three elements, but also the listener, also you and I and the reader of this piece. I aim to let each element do an equal piece of the work. So it’s not just me using mushrooms, or the mushroom using a synth. In a lot of ways the synth is using the mushrooms, and the mushrooms and synth are using me. And the audience is part of this world, too, by entering into listening to it. You’re all entangled together in this little worlding project!
Will: That's so cool! So in making the album, what surprised you most?
Eryk: What surprised me was the first time I had confirmation that the voltage spikes were actually the internal communication signal of the mushroom and not some other thing. I’d left a lamp on, and these massive synth stabs started coming out. I turned the lamp off, and seven minutes later the stabs stopped. I did this experiment a few times, and every time, the stabs would start two minutes after turning on the lamp and stop seven minutes after turning it off. And I realized that I was having a conversation with this mushroom. Which of course, you don’t want to go around telling people you talked to a mushroom. But how else would I describe it? The synthesizer sent me a message — the mushroom knew the light was on, and now I knew that the mushroom knew that. That’s communication! And it’s not that bizarre, really: a houseplant communicates its health, right? It’s just not common to have those signals come in through my ears. So it was this strange experience of having something like a conversation with these oyster mushrooms, of listening to them.
Will: Now I really want to know: who or what are your influences musically?
Eryk: With this project, I was open to a lot of the generative experiments of folks like John Cage or ambient works of Brian Eno. Both embraced technology, chance, unique interactions and redefinitions of music. I also admired working with the constraints of the mushroom. I could set a few parameters, but for the most part, the mushroom’s voltage served as triggers within those parameters. So actually, the first time I made many of the pieces, I found them frustrating. It’s not music I would make on my own. But stepping outside of myself and trying to listen to what this assemblage of mushroom and synthesizer were making, I found real beauty in it.
Worlding is an attempt to make present the sentience that already surrounds us, and the intelligence that emerges through relationships.
Will: As I listen to the album, one big question comes to mind. How much of what we hear is the mushroom vs. your efforts to transform it into music?
Eryk: Most of what you hear has zero compositional feedback coming from me. A key thing to note is that there are no keys on this thing, it’s just electricity routed into knobs. The voltage levels from the mushroom set the notes, intensity, tempo, everything. I played a little organ dirge on track one on a different synth. After that, you hear some quick calibrations of the settings at the start of “Pinning” to sort of jumpstart the synth cycle. But on every other track there is no compositional input from me at all. Just mixing stuff, making sure the volume was stable, that sort of thing. Before anything happens, I set limits on the synth so that the voltage doesn’t just result in chaos, then I press record. That’s it!
Will: That's wild. So do you have any other myco-music projects in the works?
Eryk: I’ve just got the synth back so now I will be getting a solar battery pack to go listen in on mushrooms from the forest rather than my little research environment. I’m excited to see what wild mushrooms, and mushrooms beyond Oysters, sound like!
Will: I look forward to hearing more! On that front, what does the future of human-mushroom collaboration look like to you?
Eryk: This whole project was an exercise in designing technology that put humans in the position of listening to the natural world rather than making the natural world listen to us. I think there’s a lot that the world of technology can learn from ecology — and I do mean ecologists, of course, but I also mean listening to actual ecologies. We can go look and see, and now listen, to plants and forests to see if they’re healthy or sick. How do we create technologies that make nature more present for us, rather than hiding nature away, or pushing ourselves further away? Hopefully these questions are part of any future human-mushroom collaboration!
The artist on a mushroom foray. Photo courtesy of Eryk Salvaggio.
Will: I can't wait. Ok, last question. If you could ask three questions of a mushroom, what would they be?
Eryk: “What is it like to be you? Do you know where your body ends and begins? Are you many bodies or just the one?”
Will: Great questions for a totally decentralized being. Thanks so much for speaking with me today!
Eryk: Absolutely! Cheers!
Eryk Salvaggio is an artist and researcher exploring the entanglement of human, mechanical and ecological systems. He holds an MSc in Media and Communications from the London School of Economics and an MSc in Applied Cybernetics from the Australian National University. He publishes his writing in his newsletter, Cybernetic Forests @cyberneticforests and website, cyberneticforests.com.