On his weekend morning runs, Skooby Laposky visits a particular tree at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library. The copper beech is reminiscent of something one would see in a storybook, Laposky, 47, said; its wide trunk and rounded canopy make it a favorite among locals. He’ll run by, stop to look closer and “see how it’s doing,” and then be on his way. His connection to this tree is one of many he shares with the nature around him, a connection that has led the mixed-media artist to create music using plants.
Laposky uses biodata sonification kits, complete with solar-powered sensors that attach to the leaves of a plant or tree to measure the energy it produces. He also employs a portable system of intricate wiring that connects to a smaller kit housing the data set, which gives the plants their “sound” and melds with the plants’ energy exerted through their biological processes. Once Laposky assigns a key and note range to the data he has collected, the unique melodies of the plant can be heard. His specimens have included his houseplants, the trees surrounding his home in East Cambridge, where he lives with his wife and two children, and greenery from around the world.
Laposky is careful not to say that plants can “sing.” “The artistry,” he explains, “is connecting a certain kind of sound palette that represents the data accurately,” conscious of letting the plant’s energy speak for itself. The result transcends beyond a set definition. It has a soothing tone and ambient quality, reminiscent of something between psychedelic indie and folk music.
Working on another biodata sonification performance with culinary plants. My rosemary is sounding like Forest Swords! 🎛🌿🌀👍 pic.twitter.com/QUpUysOuvJ— Skooby Laposky (@_pocketknife) June 6, 2017
Before moving to the Boston area in 2012, Laposky had been living in Brooklyn, N.Y., working as a club DJ and producer, which made him comfortable experimenting with music. Then, about six years ago, a Kickstarter campaign by Data Garden, a Philadelphia-based artist collective, introduced him to biodata sonification. The eventual transition from turntables to plants, he said, was an unexpected yet welcome progression: “All the music I was making, the beats I was programming, it was on the grid, very structured. With the biodata sonification music, I never know what’s going to happen.”
He said he avoids placing his influence on the music that is produced: “I want to capture however dynamic — or not dynamic — the plants were.” Trust in the process has been key to Laposky’s understanding of biodata sonification, which he admitted he is still getting used to.
“I guess I’m somewhere between a scientist and an artist, maybe closer to the artist side.”
Laposky shares his music with audiences in a variety of ways. He’s given live performances, such as at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where he collects plant data and converts it to music on-site. In January, alongside yoga instructors Marlene Boyette and Malaika Bonafide, he provided a soundtrack to an hour-and-a-half-long yoga session at MIT’s Open Space Programming.
Boyette said Laposky’s music left the attendees feeling “light” after the session.
“Magical is not even the proper word to describe how the music sounds,” she said. “Music can either complement and enhance the yoga practice, or it can be a complete distraction, and [his] was just such a complement. It was seamless.”
In 2020, Laposky and his friend Charles Copley, a Los Angeles-based guitarist, started a project called Palm Reading, for which they travel around the world collecting plant recordings and, while on location, pair it with an acoustic guitar. The duo has recorded at Walden Pond in Concord, in the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, and at the Wadi Qelt oasis in Palestine and Israel’s Ein Gedi Botanical Garden. The resulting songs — which Laposky and Copley call new-age folk — are available on Spotify and other streaming services. The recordings at Walden Pond will be released early this fall. A short-form documentary film of the pair’s experiences in Palestine and Israel will debut alongside the recordings in July.
Closer to home, Laposky created Hidden Life Radio in 2021, with funding from the Cambridge Arts Council. Inspired by the city’s disappearing tree canopy, or the parts of the city that are shaded by trees. Laposky set out to livestream music generated by three types of old-growth trees — copper beech, honeylocust, and red oak — outside the Cambridge Public Library’s three branches. His broadcasts, documented over six months, captured how changing weather and seasons influence the sound coming from the leaves. An archive of the sessions can be found at hiddenliferadio.com.
Jason Weeks, executive director of the Cambridge Arts Council, viewed Hidden Life Radio as operating at the intersection of creativity and recognizing the incredible abilities of trees. He said that by broadcasting his work, Laposky helped to animate the trees for the broader population. “He brought people even closer to this recognition of how critical and important our trees are within the community,” Weeks said.
Weeks appreciated the care Laposky took to protect the trees while working with them. Weeks described Hidden Life Radio as a project “that was light touch, in a sense, because it was very careful not to do anything to the trees that would be negative, problematic, or cause any harm.”
Such conscious efforts are expanding into a polymedia project called “Tonewood,” organized by Thomas Spencer Ladd, a professor of art and design at UMass Dartmouth. The project amplifies old-growth red spruce trees in Massachusetts, which are also used to create various musical instruments, including pianos and guitars. Ladd said that Laposky’s work stood out as it reimagines the relationship between humans and traditional music-making methods. The first phase of Tonewood is scheduled to debut at the University of Rhode Island Guitar Festival this fall with presentations from multimedia artists, including Laposky.
Laposky said he believes humans tend to form a one-sided relationship with nature, all take and no give, and he hopes his work can inspire people to pursue something different. “For people to hear the music generated from the plant activities in the trees, it’s helped to foster a better kinship between humans and the plant kingdom,” he said. “If this helps people understand nature, in some way, then I’m doing something right.”
Paulina Subia is a recent graduate of Emerson College’s Writing Literature and Publishing program.