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Botanicult Fiction: The Secret Sounds of Spores

March 10, 2021

By Alex Henderson, Curator of Living Collections, Royal Botanical Gardens

Header image: Secret Sounds of Spores, Inspace, installation view screen capture.

The Secret Sounds of Spores is a musical installation by Yann Seznec, an artist and musician whose work focuses on sound, music, physical interaction, games, and building new instruments. In 2010 Seznec collaborated with mycologist Patrick Hickey, an expert in bioluminescent fungi, to create an installation with the intention to translate the movement of fungal spores into sound.

Can the sounds of a mushroom be heard? It might seem out of this world but Seznec created custom-built software and hardware that reacted in real time to do just that. To begin, a mushroom is placed in a bell jar within which thousands of spores are produced and fall. Normally this process is hidden to the naked eye but by pointing a laser at the mushroom the spores are illuminated. This is incredibly beautiful and looks like a science fiction film. As the spores contact the laser a camera sends a live video feed to software that controls what are termed electromechanical mushroom spore reactors. These are a series of electromechanical instruments that convert the otherwise soundless and invisible process into music, revealing the secret sound of spores.

This fungal performance was first shown at Inspace in Edinburgh in 2010 before moving for a longer run at RBG’s sister garden, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. The installation achieved critical acclaim for revealing a greater appreciation of fungal beauty in an entirely new way. As performances evolved musical guests were invited to interact with the installation. In one particular performance free jazz trio the Dyad created what is possibly the worlds first fungi-human musical improvisation. Since its inception The Secret Life of Spores has been installed in several performance locations globally. Whilst it may not be to everyone’s musical ear it is certainly a fun and thought-provoking piece of sonic virtuosity that questions our preconceived notions of the natural world around us.

Yann Seznec has performed around the world in places such as London, Montreal, Melbourne and Tokyo. He is a lecturer at Abertay University and in 2015 received the British Composer Award of Sonic Art. What a fun guy! To view performances of The Secret Sound of Spores follow the links below.

Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation.

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