sLowlife [installation] (2005)

multiple stereo streams

This is sound for an exhibit about the life of plants designed by Roger Hangarter, a plant biologist at Indiana University, and artist Dennis DeHart. The exhibit opened in October 2005 at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, DC. For more information, please visit

The exhibit is set up in such a way that there are several areas that have accompanying stereo sound. Visitors experience a gradual transition between adjacent sound areas as they move around the exhibit, so the different sound textures are designed to work well when heard together.

The sound textures themselves make use of several different sorts of plant study data — changes in the curvature of seedlings as they bend toward the light, changes in light transmittance through leaves, changes in stem growth rate, and so on. I take the data from these experiments and process them with custom software I’ve written. The data then control things like the attack times of a series of repeated notes, the degree of detuning of sustained pitches in a chord, the selection of pitches from a large collection, and so on. In some cases the data have a clearly audible effect on the sound; in other cases the effect is more subtle. One of the aims is to create sound that will help put visitors in a contemplative frame of mind, so that they may better appreciate the subject of the exhibit: the slowly changing life of plants.

Play the stereo streams below at the same time. Keep in mind that these are not concert pieces. They’re meant to provide a fairly unobtrusive sound environment for the exhibit. So their rate of change is slow, and they should be played softly.

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This texture comprises four layers of repeated notes. The onset times of the notes within a layer come from a study of seedlings exhibiting phototropism, an orienting response to light. This sound is meant to accompany a video of the seedlings in action.
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This more atmospheric sound clip uses experiment data to control amplitude fluctuations.
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This sustained harmonic texture owes some of its character to an experiment that records changes in light transmittance through leaves in response to different strengths of blue light. The data control the spectral envelope of the oscillator waveforms, as well as the pitch envelopes that detune multiple oscillators playing the same pitch. That’s why you sometimes hear a very pure chord and other times hear one that sounds vaguely out of tune.


  • North Carolina Arboretum, Asheville, 1/25/2015 - 5/10/2015
  • Montshire Science Museum, Norwich, VT, 10/2012 - 11/2012
  • Chemical Heritage Foundation, Clifford C. Hach Gallery, Philadelphia, 3/3/2009 - 12/31/2009
  • Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Illinois, 6/23/2007 - 10/21/2007
  • Arts Botanica, Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago, 6/1/2007 - 6/8/2007
  • In Inflorescence, David Weinberg Collection, Chicago, 3/2/2007 - 5/5/2007
  • Museum of the Earth, Ithaca, New York, 12/23/2006 - 4/1/2007
  • United States Botanic Garden, Washington, DC, 10/26/2005 - 3/26/2006

Plant experiment data used in the process of creating the sounds was provided by Craig Whippo and Darron Luesse (Indiana University); Nathan Miller, Brian Parks, and Edgar Spalding (University of Wisconsin); and Patrice Salome and C. Robertson McClung (Dartmouth College).