Arts·Natural Collaborators

With synthesizers and sensors, a musician turns the pulse of the life of plants into beautiful music

"There's a whole conversation happening out in nature, and I want to listen in with the intent to communicate," says musician Shane Mendonsa.

'There's a whole conversation happening out in nature, and I want to listen in with the intent to communicate'

With synthesizers and sensors, a musician turns the pulse of the life of plants into beautiful music

3 months ago
Duration 8:44
“There's a whole conversation happening out in nature, and I want to listen in with the intent to communicate,” says musician Shane Mendonsa. See how he collaborates with nature in this episode of Natural Collaborators.

For these artists across Canada, nature is more than a muse or subject: nature is an artistic collaborator, directly engaged in the process of making art and deepening our understanding of the natural world around us. In Natural Collaborators, we meet artists who share creative control with the wild. The wind, the trees, the grass, the plants, the sun — they're all potential partners in art-making, and what they have to express could surprise you.

I knew something was up in the Spring of 2020 when our house plants started disappearing. First the orchid, then the snake plant, followed by the dead eucalyptus tree that we hadn't gotten around to composting. 

One by one the plants went down into the basement for a mysterious collaboration with my partner, Shane Mendonsa. Ever since the start of the pandemic, he's been making plant music and sharing it on YouTube and Bandcamp

"There's a whole conversation happening out in nature that we're not a part of, and I want to listen in with the intent to communicate," he explains to me in an interview. 

Two scientific-looking sensors on the end of wires adhere to the leaves of a potted red flower.
To make music, sensors attached to plants convert fluctuations inside them into electrical signals that are then turned into harmonious music by synthesizers and the musician. (CBC Arts)

So I made a short documentary about his latest music project, wanting to learn more about how it works and why he's so passionate about it.

Two sensors stuck to the leaves of a plant — like what you might imagine for a brain scan — send electrical data to a modular synthesizer. The data triggers various musical elements via a tangled network of rainbow-coloured cables. His synthesizers and samplers create a different piece of music each time, depending on the plant's output at that very moment. 

"It's more of a creative process as a composer where you're kind of guiding the way the information flows," Mendonsa says.

How to make plant music

3 months ago
Duration 3:04
In this Natural Collaborators video, musician Shane Mendonsa guides us through how he makes music with synthesizers and plants.

Born in New Delhi, raised in Mumbai and now based in Ottawa, Mendonsa composes music for films and ads for a living. He was one of India's first EDM (electronic dance music) producers, DJing on India's early festival circuits before turning to Bollywood. Now his independent music is geared more toward meditation, sound healing and plant communication. 

He admits he's somewhat of a perfectionist, but plant music offers him an antidote. "I always place an expectation of what needs to happen and what needs to be delivered. With plants and plant music, I get what I get from the plant. I am free to just listen, interpret and make music based on those constraints. And I think that is very liberating."

A man in headphones sitting on the ground in a forest recording music with a small modular synthesizer in front of him.
Shane Mendonsa recording outdoors with his modular synthesizer. (CBC Arts)

Mendonsa has started taking his gear into the wilderness where he's exploring the sounds of local flora. It seems it's become more about what he's letting go of, rather than what he's mastered as a musician.

"We've gotten so used to molding things and structuring our world in a way to make it fit what we want to see without just listening and observing and accepting a moment as special," he says. "Plant music introduces you to that concept, that idea. That every moment is unique, dynamic and valuable. It's a matter of just using your intuition, your gut, your heart, to just listen and pay attention and appreciate the world around you."

A modular synthesizer in front of green plants outdoors.
A modular synthesizer. (CBC Arts)

Listen to Shane Mendonsa's plant music recordings on his Bandcamp, including a project featuring two songs recorded he recorded in this video called Conversations, and see videos of him making music from plants in nature on his YouTube channel. See more of Susannah Heath-Eves' work at shefilms.ca or on Instagram.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susannah Heath-Eves is a documentary filmmaker based in Ottawa, living and working on unceded Algonquin, Anishinabek territory. She's currently working on stories about social justice and connection to nature. Her debut feature-length film, JUGAAD (2017) streamed globally on Netflix and was acquired by CBC’s documentary channel. She has worked as a production supervisor and co-editor at EyeSteelFilm, and as a reporter and current affairs associate producer for CTV and CBC Radio and Television. Susannah is a masters graduate from Carleton's school of journalism.

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