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The Talking Tree
A generative audio piece by Absolute Value of Noise © 2022
Commissioned for Radio Art Zone, June-September 2022

This piece was originally made as a 22 hour radio show for Radio Art Zone. Radio Art Zone was a 100-day radio art station for Esch2022, broadcast in the south of Luxembourg by Radio ARA on 87.8 FM.

"The Talking Tree" is inspired by four stories about trees, tree frogs, and bio-electrics. There are field recordings (wind in the forest, wind on the coast, frogs, critters on the beach), synthesized sounds made from plant circuits, and various bits and pieces made on the flute.


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One summer I was sitting in the woods at the side of a clearing. The were two baby deer who were wandering around me eating plants. I could see their mother grazing and keeping an eye on them from the other side of the clearing. I was sitting on a short bench, and taking occasional sips from a cup of coffee. It was a nice, cool, calm sunny day. I was there for about an hour when suddenly, at the far end of the clearing where the trees narrowed into a V, a tall but skinny deciduous tree started to shake and rattle, stirred up by a gust of wind. None of the trees around it moved at all. This one tree shook and rustled and made a huge noise for about 15 minutes and then it settled and stopped. It was a "Talking Tree."


I work with bio-electrics - circuits that use plants as part of their system. Plants contain many liquids and chemicals that are conductive and which change state over time. They react differently to different frequencies and signals. They become moist when it rains and dry when it is hot and sunny. I connect different parts of plants to a variety of electronic circuits. Some of them sound like lo-fi 8-bit synthesizers. They make tones, or sweeping noise patterns, cascading beeps, or sounds that mimic tweets and chirps. Some of them are radio circuits - AM transmitter antennas that create odd modulations and sound artifacts. Some of them are simply high-impedance amplifiers that pick up buzzes, static, and the natural rhythms of the very small electric signals that pass through everything in the world. This is another way of imagining the "voice" of the Tree or the whispers of plants. Is there something encoded in their bio-rhythms and the viscosity or volatility of their sap? Perhaps the bead of dew that is slowly rolling across a petal or along a stem contains a message that we can interpret in some way.


Not far from where I live, there are some Pacific Tree Frogs that live in the bushes beside a small copse of trees. It is like a small forest with a path running through it and many different little critters living here and there. In the bushes, the frogs hang out, mostly in ones and twos. They rest, shift around, look about and occasionally sing. Around this spot are many roadways - a major highway, a few small streets, a lane. There are buildings being torn down and others going up. It is hard to find a quiet time to record the voices of the frogs.


One of my favorite trees is 100 feet tall. It is thin, lacy and reaches way up into the sky with fragile fingers. Somehow it grew from a child like a piece of paper with one side to the sun and the other facing north. If it is 100 feet high it is 40 feet wide at the top. There's an enormous climbing rose that has always lived with it. It curls around the main trunk, travels way up into the air and then eventually spreads out and follows the flow of the tree branches.

This tree is rooted in the front yard of a house that has been rebuilt many times. Once it was a small one story bungalow. Then it was upgraded to two stories. Then it was demolished and replaced with a three story fancy wooden house with cedar shake and wood siding. Then the property was scraped down to bare clay. All except for a 4 foot wide circle around the base of the giant tree. The new house is cement and stucco. The ground is covered in pebbles. There is no other growth except for the tree whose roots are slowly being exposed as the soil washes away in the rain. The tree has survived like this for at least 30 years. It must have roots that go out and gather food from the neighboring gardens. But there are days in the winter, when everything is gray and brown, when the tree looks like it is floating above the ground.

I wrote a piece for flute that is a requiem not so much to the tree (which is still alive and well in this situation) but to the ground, or the earth beneath it. "Tree without an earth to stand on." This flute piece uses key clicks to simulate rain drops, and long breaths for wind, and all the pieces get mixed up and flow over and under each other.


Bio-electric synthesizer circuit, February 2022.



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