Music of Trees

GHOAudio, Environment, Sound Art


I used to work for a man who was passionate about poetry. He liked the musicality of language, the interplay of sound and meaning, and we would discuss the similarities between literature and music (I worked at a bookstore). He was playful, ebullient, and had a buzz saw wit. It caught me by surprise, one day, when he told me that he preferred structured poetic forms over the expansiveness of free verse (to me, he seemed like a free verse kind of guy). He told me he liked the limitations imposed by poetic structure — specific meter, length, etc. — because it forced him to be more creative and stretched his mind.

This anecdote keeps popping into my mind when I listen to Years, a work by artist Bartholomäus Traubeck that translates data from tree rings into piano music. Traubeck uses a modified turntable to “play” tree rings like vinyl records. The stylus is equipped with a camera that takes microscopically small images of the rings, which are then interpreted as sound via programming. Because tree rings are not perfectly circular, like the grooves on a vinyl record, they cannot dictate the path of the stylus. Instead, Traubeck chooses a set amount of time the stylus will take to travel from the outside edge of the “record” to the inside, and whenever a year ring crosses the path of the stylus, it is translated into sound.

One could argue that Years is random. But, as Traubeck points out, the modified turntable is governed by a set of “internal rules…[and] the composition is actually then being made by the tree’s data, which is not really random…it has a very special structure and follows certain rules that derive from other systems, like ecological systems.”

I don’t think the music is random either. But, more interestingly, it is also not human. The rule sets, programming, and piano sounds are all human constructs — rigid poetic forms — but what they interpret are arboreal. Consider my mind stretched.
Years on BandCamp