Books and Arts

Nature 453, 594 (29 May 2008) | doi:10.1038/453594a; Published online 28 May 2008

Music grown from garden weeds

Colin Martin1

BOOK REVIEWEDUmbel Ballits: Dylan Martorell

Craft Victoria, Melbourne Until 28 June

Botany, traditionally the preserve of watercolourists with a meticulous eye for detail, continues to inspire contemporary artists. Graphic designer and musician Dylan Martorell uses plant morphology as a starting point to create sound sculptures. His latest work is now on show in Melbourne, Australia.

Martorell begins by drawing plant-growth algorithms in pencil or ink on paper. Based on patterns he discerns in botanical structures, he uses a visual notation that enables the diagrams to function as musical scores. For this exhibition, he sourced plant structures from an Australian botanical manual by David Whibley and Trevor Christensen called Garden Weeds — Identification and Control (Botanic Gardens of Adelaide, 1991).

Music grown from garden weeds

D. MARTORELL; HTTP://WWW.HIDDENARCHIVE.COM

Dylan Martorell creates sounds using his algorithms of plant growth as musical scores.

Moving beyond his precise drawings, Martorell also constructs less ordered three-dimensional sculptures. Evoking the original botanical structures, he incorporates found objects, musical instruments and living plants. He also digitally converts data from his drawings into music that slides from one frequency to another. Selections of the resulting 3.5-minute sound tracks are played simultaneously in Craft Victoria's gallery, generating complex, overlapping sound patterns that create a fourth, aural dimension to his multimedia interpretation of the plant world. A small ensemble of musicians, including Martorell, occasionally rehearses and performs live music in the gallery, using the sculptures as instruments to generate sound.

"Currently I am creating hand-written scores based on the floral structures in various flowering plants such as racemes [unbranched flowers] and umbels [umbrella-like flowers]," says Martorell. Although the title of his exhibition — Umbel Ballits — mimics linnaean binomial classification, that was not his main intention. "Ballits is old Afro-American vernacular for ballads," he explains. "The sound pieces in my exhibition are based on pentatonic tunings, which were influenced by a variety of musical traditions, including the development of blues music in its journey from Africa to America."

The artist's musical scores take two forms. In one, he uses an upright trunk or stem to represent the base note or drone of the music, with branches or clusters providing extra musical notation. Scales and frequencies are represented on the horizontal axis and time is represented vertically. His second score pattern is shaped like a flower, with each petal representing a different base note, either played in clockwise succession or simultaneously. Using structures derived from local flora as his building blocks, Martorell draws, sculpts and composes multilayered and location-specific artworks that challenge our perception of botanical art.

  1. Colin Martin is a writer based in London.

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