Using data gathered from plants and fungi, Alex H Duncan creates unique, “non-human” sounds and melodies. It’s intoxicating stuff

“Listen to this,” says Alex H Duncan, attaching a crocodile clip to a nearby fern, as a noise sounding like barbed wire being spun through a meat grinder fills his studio. “All living things have electrical activity in them. That sound is the plant moving cells and water about. It’s picking up on electrical currents moving through the plant, into the soil and back up through this other leaf again. Hold on, that’s a bit crap…”

He furrows his brow, flicks a switch and twists a knob.

“Ah, that’s much less silly,” he sighs. “This plant is now photosynthesising and transpiring and will carry on doing this for hours. If you kill or hurt it, the MIDI notes will go up. Then as it calms down it will start to do this. It’s influenced by so many things – storms, being watered, if I set fire to it…”

He stops mid-sentence and pauses.

“If I have to do something to a plant, it’s only if there is a very good reason.”

Since 2018, when he discovered PlantWave – an ingenious palm-sized “bio-sonification” device which measures the electrical conductivity of a plant and translates the data – Alex has not been short on inspiration in his quest to uncover the sounds of the natural world.

It’s certainly a change of pace from his previous work with guitar-based trio Assassins Of Sound. A day in the life of Alex H Duncan might now involve frolicking around centuries-old flora in one of England’s ancient woodlands, hooking up sensors to miles-long mycelial networks underfoot, or analysing how trees respond to anything from gong baths to the sounds of thousands of rubber wellies at Glastonbury Festival. 

Meeting up with Alex in his utterly idyllic Candyland Studio – a self-built, wood-cabin recording hideaway in one of Devon’s last remaining temperate rainforests – it’s immediately clear that a big part of the thrill is in the unique surprises his flowery friends offer up.

“We often fall into the trap of having all of these amazing tools that can imitate a Marshall stack from 1967, but that can stifle creativity, because we’re just simulating things that have already happened,” says Alex, as he absent-mindedly picks up a guitar and strums. “When collecting biodata from a different organism, and using that to go on a musical journey, it’s hard to get caught in a trap of thinking, ‘Oh, that plant sounds like Radiohead, or that one sounds like Madonna’.”

His ongoing ‘Plant Medicine’ series is a case in point. These 40-minute instrumental “mantras”, which Alex has been posting every couple of months since June 2023, present bewitching tangles of ambient underworlds that refuse to be neatly boxed. Above all else, these ever-shifting compositions showcase his side mission – to portray our natural world with authenticity.

“In nature, things kill each other,” he says. “Things rot. Nature is mud, it’s earthy – not an image of a fluffy unicorn dancing on some pink grass. That’s a New Age perception. If you look at patterns in the trees, they can be mathematically incredible and also dangerous, and I try to make music that follows those patterns to make us less scared of it. If our children are going to have a future, we need to trust the fungus and mycelium to crack on. ’Cos we’re fucking useless. But they’re amazing.”

At its most profound, Alex’s music succeeds in peeling away the dividing layers between humans and nature, as shown by his stunning 2022 album, ‘Subcubensis’, for which he had the daring idea to record a cluster of magic mushrooms he found growing on his father’s grave. 

The music is a textured drone which rustles forebodingly, and given that Alex describes it as “a paean to my father, considering his very nutrients and molecules were growing in those mushrooms”, the underlying theme is one of decomposition – a word that takes on extra meaning when you understand his blueprint for making plant music.

“If you’re listening to something that’s been made by another organism, and you start to learn what that musical event is, then you need to have respect and reverence for the musical structure that’s being created,” he explains. “And more and more, I think it’s about becoming part of a conversation. I’ve got to listen to whatever that plant’s done, and if I then add human sections to it, it’s got to be because that makes it easier for humans to listen to it. As soon as you get too human about it, it all falls apart.”

This issue of authorship has been of particular concern to Alex on his new album, ‘The Path’. Released on ethical label Irregular Patterns, its seven tracks see him getting more hands-on than ever before. 

“When I did ‘Subcubensis’, I was saying, ‘This is data from magic mushrooms – go and listen to it’. That kind of approach probably went back to when I had a creative breakdown. Then I discovered I could make music using plants, which was brilliant, because I wasn’t responsible for the musical structures at all! I was simply facilitating whatever the mushroom or plant ‘said’. Now I’ve had a modicum of success, it’s given me a bit more confidence to think my ideas aren’t utterly stupid, and what I’ve tried to do with ‘The Path’ is put a lot more of myself into it. It might even have some sense of rhythm!”

Full of raging sound storms that hold about as much violence as a wormhole turning in on itself, the album speaks to the age of climate breakdown we desperately find ourselves in, and how recording a humble maple tree, for instance, could become a small act of resistance. Alex is careful not come across as an evangelist, and he believes you can’t force people to change. But you also can’t ignore his wide-eyed enthusiasm for the power of nature. So, I wonder, has making plant music changed him at all?

“I’m fundamentally different,” he asserts. “Letting music lead you, educate you and change the way you think is very good for the brain. I’m now a more patient person – I can wait for things. I think the more unhappy and stressed you become, the more you consume, so I’m trying to get everyone to slow down. But I can’t lie – it’s taken me a long time to get here.”

‘The Path’ is out on Irregular Patterns

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