Florganoleptic Music: Cosmic Knot jams with plants for KVCC Foodways Symposium

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Do plants play music?

Do they play music like a guitar or a piano plays music -- that is, with considerable assistance from a human musician? Or, can music come from within them, as living beings expressing themselves? 

In other words, can a human musician play a plant solo, or would it be a duet?

Florganoleptic music

Tom Wall and his jam band Cosmic Knot will perform at the 2023 Kalamazoo Valley Food Symposium April 15. The band is Wall on guitar, his drummer, bassist, and a few plants.

When Second Wave spoke to Wall, he hadn't decided yet what plant to bring. He's gotten fond of "little baby sequoias and redwoods." Wall has jammed with plants from a small aloe plant to giant redwoods to – at this past Hash Bash in Ann Arbor – a cannabis plant.

Tom Wall of Cosmic Knot Wall grew up on his family's farm in Bridgeton Township, between Muskegon and Newaygo. A lot of the property was "just a vast forest area," Wall says. "I was always out in the woods by myself a lot. And that helped me gain an ability to understand nature in a different way than maybe some other people would."

He would jam with friends on guitar in the woods and came to believe there was "an energy out there" among the plants. When he formed Cosmic Knot he wanted to include "sounds of nature," which became literal when he got a Music of the Plants device which uses sonification technology to produce sounds that are musically-pleasing.

He connected it with an aloe vera plant in his studio. "I wasn't expecting any startling conclusions with this. I was just doing it because I thought it was kind of fun."

The device picks up on the electromagnetic signals of plants, "like a lie detector," he says, and then it assigns musical notes to the wavelengths. 

He attached the alligator clips to the plant, thinking he'd just get random ambient sounds. "It started making way different music than I thought it would," Wall says. He picked up his guitar to "play a song to it, see if it responded, almost as a joke. When I did, sure enough, it worked, the plant started to respond to what I was doing and started to play along." 

Wall thought he might have been trying too hard to imagine that the plant was playing with him, thinking "Maybe I want this a little too much or something." 

The next week he brought in his band. "When the drummer started playing, we had the plant playing, and it got really excited, so I could hear it respond to him." 

They took it to a recording studio. "The plant played perfectly well on a seven-minute song, it played so well we ended up doing the whole song in one take." 

Cosmic Knot plays florganoleptic music.Wall is convinced that plants are "responding, in some weird way," not only to the music he plays, but to vibes around them. 

He recently played for a funeral. Instead of making notes as usual when hooked up to the plant, the device was silent, until Wall encouraged it with a chord from his guitar.

He and a plant performed at Art Prize in Grand Rapids. When a group of businesspeople walked by, in suits and carrying briefcases, the plant refused to play until they were out of sight. "I wonder what was going on with those people," he says.

Wall was setting up at a venue playing "electronic music, boomin'" over the PA. "This music was pretty hideous." He tried to get the plant warmed up for the show, but it refused to make a sound. "I had them stop (the music), and sure enough, the plant starts to play."

Most plants are not only temperamental, but they are also inexperienced musicians, he's found. "They like to be encouraged. Plants don't know how to play. They usually like to have some kind of influence. They kind of, like, learn." 

He was featured on an episode of the Amazon Prime series "Mystic Michigan." That led to contacts with people working to preserve clones and DNA of ancient redwoods. 

Wall then found himself 200 feet up a sequoia, to attach clips to its needles. The giant old trees responded in a different way than his little aloe plant, he said. Wall was convinced that "there's a consciousness" in the trees, "some kind of sentient force." 

When playing with the sequoias, "you change the chord, and there they are waiting for you, where the other trees kinda follow you.... some kind 
of wisdom, it was almost teaching me how to play music in its own way."

"It raises more questions than answers." Wall is open to the possibility that he's reading more into the plants' reactions than is really there, but no one has given him any proof that it's "bulls---."  

"I think there's a lot more going on with nature than we realize." 

Amplified cactus

Kalamazoo's Brad Miller is a retired public school guidance counselor and experimental musician who plays a cactus.

When he's playing with the cactus, does he feel any connection with it? 

"I don't believe I have a psychic connection with my cactus," he says. 

Is there a sound connection? 

"Very much a sound connection." 

He solos on "Cactus Improvisation #1," a ten-and-a-half minute track on the new EP "Milo on a Bike," by Kalamazoo band Wowza. 

How does one play a cactus?

Brad Miller plays the cactus with his Kalamazoo band Wowza."You can pluck it, you can bow it, you can rub it -- with gloves. Every spine, the length and the width of the spine creates a different sound," Miller says. "I run it through my rig," through various pedals and devices that shift pitch, create fuzz, distortion, and delay.

"I'm using it as a percussive instrument," he says.

How does the cactus feel about that?

"The cactus doesn't always love it," he says. 

"The cactus usually doesn't make live, on-stage appearances." He used a cactus for the first gig of his previous band Brown Company in 2012. "I had my little cactus sitting on the theremin. I was bowing it, it was fine, I turned around and it caught the cord, and it went boom." 

"It lasted a few more days, but...." The fall was eventually fatal.

Miller is not the first to play a cactus. Composer John Cage introduced the idea of amplified cactus in music

Miller got into plucking spines with another group, Chance Operations Collective of Kalamazoo, which specialized in the experimental pieces of Cage. They were at a Cage festival in Chicago, where they played "Child of Tree," which requires cacti, and "Branches," which could use any plant matter.  

"We all had our little cacti with contact mics, made little plucking sounds in the Fine Arts building of Chicago, and everyone thought it was pretty swell."

Cage would stick mics inside cacti. "I use a contact mic so the cactus isn't harmed in any way, other than being manhandled." 

Brad Miller plays the cactus with his Kalamazoo band Wowza.Why play a cactus? "It's interesting, and it's visually appealing, and it sort of breaks the wall of what is accepted as music, or not," he says. "There's a certain amount of spectacle involved in it, but I really like the sounds that it makes."

Miller has expanded beyond cacti. "I have amplified rocks, pinecones... other than that, it gets more normal, like an amplified rake," he says, laughing. 

Miller was going to join Wowza In Kalamazoo when they recorded "Milo on a Bike" at Electrical Audio in Chicago last December, for a duet with Beth McDonald (amplified tuba). But he fell ill, so he recorded the "Cactus Improvisation #1" solo in his basement.

In May, "we're going on tour," Miller says, laughing, "and we're going to North Dakota. There's a true-crime podcast called 'Dakota Spotlight,' " which exclusively uses music from bands involving Wowza guitarists Ike Turner and Franki Hand. The podcast is staging a live event.

They'll be playing a true-crime podcast party in North Dakota? 

"Something like that, yes."

Wowza in Kalamazoo's EP "Milo on a Bike" is available on Bandcamp

Cosmic Knot will be part of the 2023 Kalamazoo Valley Foodways Symposium Saturday, April 15, at Kalamazoo Valley's Food Innovation Center, 224 E. Crosstown. Their presentation, "Would You Believe Plants Can Play Music," will be at 11 a.m.

The symposium runs 11 a.m.-2 p.m. with music, gardening/food exhibitors, and activities. 

Kalamazoo Valley Community College 2023 Food Symposium takes place on April 15th.

A sampling of the symposium:

11 a.m. - 2 p.m. – Composting (WMU Office of Sustainability students) 
Noon - 12:45 p.m. – Food Photography (Aubrey Rodgers) 
Cooking demonstrations: 
11 a.m. - 11:45 a.m. – Rainbow Food Styling (Tip Maddux) 
12:30 - 1 p.m. – Crepes! (Chef Channon Mondoux) 
Indoor Classroom Sessions: 
11 a.m. - 11:45 a.m. – “The Power of a Story” (farmers Trent Thompson & Bridgett Blough) 
1:15 - 1 p.m. – “Mentored by Media” (Chef Channon Mondoux on her rise to chef) 
Youth activities: 
11 a.m. - 2 p.m. – 4-H gardening activity 
12:15 - 1 p.m. – Food-themed music session (Crescendo Academy of Music) 
Also planned:
11 a.m. - noon – Foraging walk (with the @ChaoticForager) 
11 a.m. - 2 p.m. – Plant your own herb 
11 a.m. - 2 p.m. – 4-H gardening activity 
11 a.m. - 2 p.m. – Seed sculpture activity 
11 a.m. - 2 p.m. – Apiary info booth 
11 a.m. - 2 p.m. – Plant art activity 
11 a.m. - 2 p.m. – Free bike tune-ups (Open Roads) 
Noon - 1 p.m. – Tours of Food Innovation Center 
1 - 2 p.m. – Foraging walk (with the @ChaoticForager) 

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.