Q&A: PhotoSymphony composer Andrew Forde on music for plants and the power of audio

On May 12, the International Day of Plant Health, we launched an awareness campaign called PhotoSymphony, which demonstrates what we do for communities in Africa by using audio to promote plant growth in a different way. PhotoSymphony is an original piece of music made specifically for plants. It combines different elements that are shown to improve the health of plants into the ultimate plant growth song that you can play at home.

PhotoSymphony’s composer, Andrew Forde, was gracious enough to sit down with members of our communications team, Eleanor Willner-Fraser and Christian Robillard, to answer a few questions about his creative process and the science behind music that helps plants grow.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christian Robillard: When somebody approaches you to make a symphony that “makes plants grow,” or “helps plants to grow,” what’s your initial reaction?

Andrew Forde: First thought is “awesome.” Second thought is “I don’t know what that actually means.”

The first step for me was to understand what that meant and to do a little bit of research to unpack what it means to make plants grow.

Eleanor Willner-Fraser: Can you walk us through the process that you went through to develop the symphony?

AF: The process was split across three phases. The first was doing some research. What does it mean to help plants grow? There’s a lot of scientific work that’s been done in this area. The way that we think about hearing and we listen with our ears and we have responses based on that is similar to how plants respond to their environments — certain frequencies, certain vibrations, certain rhythmic patterns, even sounds in nature. If a plant hears, for example, a big animal walking and crushing trees or plants around it, let’s say an elephant, it actually will start to strengthen its stalk so that it grows a little stronger. If there’s water sources nearby, a flowing river, flowing streams, the roots of the plants will start to seek out and move and grow in the direction of the water source. So the plants are always actively listening and trying to adapt themselves to their environments …

The second stage was then how do I take what I’ve learned and turn it into something that can be played back to plants? That was for me really exciting because there’s all these elements within PhotoSymphony that capture what the research has said is good for plants.

Then the final piece was how do I now make it something that humans want to listen to? Because I don’t think everyone wants to hear droning and high frequencies. How do you take what you’ve created for the plants and put it in a package that humans would want to listen to as well?

Listen to Andrew talking about his composition process:

CR: Could you walk us through those different movements of the symphony?

AF: The symphony itself is split over four movements … I wanted to capture the various stages in plant growth. The first movement is called “African Soil.” That is where all of plant life begins: in the soil. It’s what nourishes it. It’s what gives it all the fertility necessary to grow and share and do all the things that plants require. The second movement is called “Seeds of Groove.” That’s the germination. This is where the seeds, after you’ve planted them in the soil, start to grow and become a plant. The third movement is called “Emerald Synthesis.” That’s when the plant’s actually a plant. It’s taking light and turning it into food and all the greens and the lusciousness of the plant come out. The last movement is called “Beautiful Harvest.” That’s where you harvest the fruit or the output from the plant, the vegetation, and then the cycle repeats itself …

In the movements themselves, you’ll hear different features from a musical perspective. The first track uses drumming from West Africa, from Ghana. The rhythm that is used follows patterns that plants respond to. The second movement, “Seeds of Groove,” is a little more jazz-based, which is another genre of music that plants seem to respond well to. The third is a metal track, which was a lot of fun to create. With metal, it’s the rhythmic accuracy that is extremely mathematical. That’s probably why plants react well to that. Then the last piece, “Beautiful Harvest,” is a combination of all the different elements, bringing it all together …

From a plant perspective, there’s a couple of things that are inherent in all the movements. As a listener, your human ear will pick up on the sounds of nature, the birds, the water, the bees, the movement in the forests, all those sorts of things. From a non-human ability, there’s actually a frequency that’s resonating from beginning to end across all four movements at 115 hertz, which is the ideal frequency for plants. We won’t hear that, but it’s happening the whole time for the plants. So there’s something there for the plants to hopefully gain and grow and have an opportunity to leverage from the music, as well as the listener.

Listen to Andrew describing the different movements of PhotoSymphony:

CR: One of the first things that came up for me when we were thinking about this project was, is there an actual science behind music that can help plants to grow? I’m curious, for those who might have a similar initial reaction, what would you say to those individuals to try to dispel that belief?

AF: I would say if you’re open to the idea of scientific research, it’s worth looking these things up and going down that path because there’s a lot of research done and it might not be framed in the sense of music. Some are: we played metal, we played rock over a three-week period, same water, same fertilization, same sunlight. The plant that had access to the metal genre was much healthier than the one that we were playing rock or classical or jazz for. So there’s been studies that have done that. If you don’t believe that, luckily these are the sorts of studies you can do yourself. So long as you set up the right environments and you’re doing everything else the same and only playing different types of music, you can see this for yourself, right? …

The second thing I would say is … for whatever reason, we’re in a period where a lot of hard-earned scientific fact is being challenged … There’s been a rise of flat earth conspiracies and all these sorts of things. For whatever reason, there’s an environment now where people are a little more skeptical of science and the things that science has done for the world. But I would say something like this … you don’t need to have a PhD to pursue it. You can go out, buy two plants, set them up exactly the same, play music for them, and see what happens.

EWF: You’ve talked about your composition, but can you expand on the role that audio has played in your life?

AF: Audio is very important to me. There’s very few things that can connect with you without the need of much information or context. I can arrive anywhere in the world, not understand the language, not even understand the geography or where I am. But listening to the music of that area or listening to auditory signals of the area is something that you can immediately have a connection with.

That’s the power of music and that’s why there’s a beautiful bridge between human life and plant life in this project. We’re all responding to vibrations, we’re all responding to frequencies in ways that we might not understand, but it still moves us, it still gives us thoughts, it still gives us feeling. For me personally, that’s been a big part of my life. Being able to not necessarily understand, but at least be able to engage and partake with different people, different cultures, different circumstances, purely through an auditory experience.

EWF: Is there anything that you’d like to add that we didn’t touch on already?

AF: The last thing I would say is, what also has been a beautiful journey for me in making this work was around the idea of interaction between people and nature. Right now, there’s a lot of tension between the role of humans and what that means for the planet and are we proper stewards of the planet? Are we taking care of things? There’s a lot of conversation around that. There’s also a lot of doomsday conversations … Sometimes it sounds very zero sum. It sounds very much like, either we take care of the planet or we live lives that we’re not comfortable with.

Going through this process showed me that you can have both. It’s difficult. It takes time. You’ve
got to spend the time up front to do the hard work. But ultimately, you can create something that benefits plants, which is what I’ve done, but is also nice to listen to. For me, it’s a beautiful joining of the two ideas, which is that it doesn’t have to be us versus nature. It can be both, it can be harmonious, it can be sustainable. We just have to do the difficult work of figuring out how to set that up and then bring it together creatively so that we can all enjoy and the plants get to benefit as well.

>> Download PhotoSymphony for your plants here: https://bit.ly/Photosymphony

About Andrew Forde
Andrew Forde is an award-winning violinist and acclaimed composer who has performed for presidents (Clinton & Bush Jr.) and with some of the biggest names in popular music: Shad, Mary J. Blige, Sting, Justin Bieber, Sheryl Crow, Akon, Pitbull, Kardinal Offishall and Fresh Wes.

He has completed sold-out shows at Koerner Hall and the Red Bull Music Academy; The Great Hall in Toronto, Ontario; Kenneth C. Rowe Hall in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Vancouver Art Gallery; SXSW 2019 in Austin, Texas; and various venues across Europe and Asia. Learn more about Andrew here.

Eleanor Willner-Fraser is the Communications Assistant at Farm Radio International.

Christian Robillard is the Head of Stakeholder Engagement at Farm Radio International.

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