Great Moments in MondoDC History
Herb 'n' Electrics: Stereofernic Orchidstra 
Gives Voice to the Vegetable Kingdom
A hush falls over the recital hall audience as a rich, reverberating voice begins speaking of the mysteries of the cosmos: the connection between all things, the intelligence of plants. The curtains part and the stage lights flash on six Easter lilies, conspicuous wires connecting them to an ARP 2600 synthesizer. Roughly two hundred people--a standing room only crowd drawn by the radio ads and crazy posters--lean forward to catch the first strains of plant music. 

What comes out is a shock. The noise they hear is fantastic: a chorus of intense, high-pitched screams rising rapidly in energy until it soars menacingly above the crowd. An infinite glissando encompassing all the terror and joy of life itself, this electronically enhanced song of the plants represents the protean cry of the most basic intelligence. If that old science fiction movie Day of the Triffids came to pass, this might be the hunting call of the invading alien vegetables. A sound designer couldn't find a better way to capture the full, wondorous horror of Jack's beanstalk growing out of control into the heavens. It's the call of the wildflowers, the sound of kudzu or mile-a-minute consuming a landscape, the love song of an oak tree pollinating in springtime, the war cry of Tolkien's Ents on the road to Isengard: majestic, enormous, profoundly strange, and unutterably inhuman. It's not even mammalian. Hell, forget about the animal kingdom altogether: we've jumped to another life form entirely. What's worse: we're surrounded by 'em!

Here in the Kreeger Music Building's McDonald Recital Hall, on the campus of American University, on April 17, 1974, a peculiar kind of history is being made. This is the world's first live plant concert. And in quadrophonic sound, no less. For millenia, plants have listened to us, but finally, we get to hear them. For forty-five minutes, the humans are mesmerized. The implications are staggering. Are plants somehow intelligent? Could they have feelings? What are they telling us? 

After the concert, some of the attendees approach the faciliatator of the evening's entertainment, a young physics student named Norman Lederman. Heís the one who set up the equipment, wired the plants, figured out a way to make it possible. The concertgoers offer congratulations. And some of them even feel they were responsible for the changes they were hearing.

It's a typically human approach to cosmic revelations--and, despite the specific, uh, vegetable nature of the revelations, entirely within keeping with the plant-crazed 70s zeitgeist.

Lederman was not the first to attach electrodes to plants to communicate with them. As recounted by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird in their 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants,  several different scientists had conducted such experiments. One of the earliest plant researchers to go out on a limb, so to speak, was Cleve Backster, who's 1966 investigations lead him to wire a plant to a lie detector. Backster discovered that he could elicit an "emotional response" from the plant by watering it. And when he thought about burning a leaf with a match, the graph changed dramatically, leading to speculations that plants possessed ESP (p. 3-5). A later Popular Electronics article on Backsterís work included a wiring diagram for a "psychanalyser" which would pick up and amplify plant reactions. The psychanalyser was similar to Scientologyís "E-meter" in that both measured galvanic response (p. 18). 

Yet another plant researcher, Eldon Bird, a George Washington University alumni who worked out of the Naval Ordnance Lab in Silver Spring, MD, believed he could "pick up through a special amplifier minute changes in voltage or resistance" thus "hearing" plant responses (p. 41).

And in Japan, Dr. Ken Hashimoto wired up a cactus to a lie detection system that electronically transposed voice modulations. Hashimoto had altered the equipment so that the modulations were transformed into sound. He failed at his own attempts to ìconverseî with the plants by sending them voice messages changed to modulations; however, his wife, described as an "avid gardener," was rewarded with "an instant response from the cactus."

Thompson and Bird relate that "transformed and amplified by Dr. Hashimoto's electronic equipment, the sound produced by the plant was like the high-pitched hum of very-high-voltage wires heard from a distance, except that it was more like a song, the rhythm and tone being varied and pleasant, at times even warm and almost jolly" (p. 43-45). This description of cactus communications could serve for the Stereofernic Orchidstra, though Ledermanís singing plants could not be said to be "jolly." 

Not content to hear the "voice" of the cactus, the Hashimotos went further, apparently becoming "so intimate with the plant that they were soon able to teach it to count and add up to twenty."

Not surprisingly, such revelations found a receptive audience in 1973 when the book was released. Alongside back-to-the-land communards; Findhorn gardeners; New Age spiritualists finding connections in all living things; whole food faddists, macrobiotic dieters, vegans and vegetarians--not to mention intrepid voyagers into the intoxicating head trips of peyote buttons, pot leaves & mushrooms--the denizens of the Aquarian Age were primed for Tompson and Bird's mind-blowing revelations on plant intelligence, communication and ESP. But in DC, a trio of young men at Sounds Reasonable recording studios in Dupont Circle went further than most. While others were content to speculate on the implications of herbal consciousness, Ed Barnett, Gary Barnes, and Norman Lederman actually gave plants their own voice.

In a September 1974 interview with Washingtonian magazine, Lederman credited the initial idea to Barnett, his boss at Sounds Reasonable, who presented the younger man with an acoustical problem: "Could they build an ultra-sensitive machine to pick up the one-one millionth of a volt electrical output of a leaf and then amplify it to the half-volt needed to make audible sound?"

It all came down to Lederman's skills as an audio visionary. Like most 20 year olds, Lederman had the idea that hanging around in the music industry would be fun, so he had grabbed an internship at the studio. Little did he know that his studies in acoustics and electronics would come in handy. He whipped up a device that resembled Backsterís psychanalyzer, wiring plants to pick up their electro-chemical responses, boosting these electrical signals with a "plant amplifier," and then using the stronger signals to trigger a voltage controlled synthesizer.

A subscriber to Popular Electronics, Lederman may well have seen the article on Backster's invention, and he describes modelling his own plant amplifier on a schematic he saw in the magazine. "Technically, it's called a wheatstone bridge," Lederman tells me. "A wheatstone bridge is just a very sensitive circuit that's looking for change, even the very slight change of value. In this case it would be resistance, because we were using an electrode to detect the changing resistance of a leaf....You know how voltage controlled synthesizers work, theyíre looking for changes in voltage. So we were able to control pitch, volume, filtering--all the different aspects just from the change in voltage from the plants." Lederman was able to increase the complexity of the plant voicings as he moved from a single-channel amplifier to a multi-channel one. 

The Washingtonian continues the story:

"Building this plant amp was the beginning," Lederman said, showing off a six-dialed wooden rectangle. "Now that we've got it, I want to do some really scientific experiments." Six thin gray wires protruded from the belly of the amplifier. There were clothespin-like clips on each end. "These are electrodes that are clipped on the leaves," Lederman explained. "They're made of two pieces of balsa wood held together with a rubber band, because theyíve got to be lightweight. The insides of the clip are lined with gold foil for good conductivity, and I use a chemical that reduces the leaf's electrical resistance on the foil."

He continued his impromptu course in elementary microelectronics, "The synthesizer takes the half-volt output from the plant amp and filters it into the components of sound frequency (pitch), amplitude (volume), and waveform (sinusoidal, sawtooth, triangular, and square)." (Kushner)

The article describes the finished beast as a "huge box littered with dials, switches, buttons, and levers," noting  "the synthesizer is itself an electronic musical instrument, and the plants are its musicians" (Kushner). The American University Report revealed that Lederman got course credit for his six-month plant project and the resulting plant amplifier--one of many independent studies he did through the Physics Department as he pioneered their Audio Engineering degree program.

Ultimately, the three took Lederman's device to the National Botanical Gardens where they wired up a plant quartet--azalea, philodendron, fern and amaryllis--and let them blow. The sounds were so far out it was scary.

 When he first heard the plant music, Lederman remembers feeling "excited by the underlying concepts and research potential," he writes by email. "I have always been fascinated by SOUND...so my first mind reaction to the "plant sounds" was one of fascination. Fascination with the changes caused by the plants' connection to the system...and ultimately fascinated by the resultant mix."

Then the Sounds Reasonable crew did something truly unreasonable: they released six minutes of the resulting plant music as a seven inch vinyl record under the title "Stereofernic Orchidstra." According to the record sleeve notes:

"Side One of this record represents a non-scientific effort to record the complex electro-chemical activity of an Indian azalea, a philodendron, a Boston fern and an amaryllis. The four plants are heard in the above order. They were recorded using a specially constructed "plant amplifier" at the U.S. Botanical Gardens on separate tracks of a professional four channel tape recorder. The 'sounds' of each plant have been mixed together to form a composite stereo sound. There have been no special electronic effects added.

"Side Two uses the same recording; however, each of the plants' signals have been fed into a massive electronic music synthesizer. The result is presented as musique concrete. Both the human wave form musician and the plants control the synthesizerís output."

Composition on both sides was credited to Lederman, while Burke shared credit on the b-side as "arranger." Always the businessman, Barnett saw the potential of having a unique calling card to promote his recording studio, so the disc was independently released by Sounds Reasonable Inc. of 2000 P Street, NW, Washington, DC. 

It didn't take long before the press picked up the story. Writing in Rolling Stone, Jim Wiggins compared the record to the "electronic searchings" of Stockhausen, Cage and Sun Ra. "The first side features the raw plant 'voices' tuned to different pitches on an oscillator," Wiggins reported. "It sounds like a demonic, atonal violin section in electro-frenzy. On the second side the plants control the changes on an ARP music synthesizer. The result is more musical, but no less bizarre." And Backstage's Washington correspondent cleverly noted that the plant music "often sounds like a buzzsaw in heat" (Williams).

"Itís very spacey, some people say terrifying," Barnett told the Washington Star-News. "It's a head trip. You listen to it stoned and it's really something."

"We donít know what the plants' responses are," [Barnett continued] "but we do know thereís a response and it reflects physical change, like the presence or absence of sunlight. When you water a plant, it goes absolutely bananas."

"Is the plant happy or sad? We can't tell. We passed a tunafish sandwich in front of an Easter lily and it went haywire, but does that mean Easter lilies like tunafish sandwiches or hate them?" (Braaten)

The buzz on the project got so hot that major media started calling. Wiggins reported that Atlantic Records expressed interest in a full-length LP, but--surprise, surprise--"felt it wasn't commercially feasible." And representatives for a planned film based on Thompson & Bird's book talked to Barnett about including the Stereofernic project. While a documentary was finally made by director Walon Green and released in December 1978, it neglected the Orchidstra altogether. Instead, the producers enlisted Stevie Wonder to write the soundtrack, which was ultimately released as his album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Lederman tells me that an engineer working for Wonder once called to discuss his plant experiments, potentially looking for insight into vegetable sounds.

Today, Lederman seems less than wowed by the positive vibes. He appreciated the "extremely enthusiastic" audience response to the plant music, but the intense hype Barnett and Sounds Reasonable generated for the project made him uncomfortable. "I'm not the sort of person who is going to grab the microphone and start screaming into the camera," Lederman says. And as a scientist himself, he couldnít guarantee the validity of his experiments. "The technical premise, well, it's one thing to be a scientist with great resources for precision equipment and electrodes, but we fashioned these electrodes out of foil and balsa wood and rubber bands. I could not say with any certainty that what we were hearing were changes brought about by just the electrodes changing in their contact with the leaf."

"I ultimately bowed out of it all because I felt uncomfortable making claims that could not be supported (e.g., the plants were performing for the humans, etc)," Lederman adds by email. "So many variables that we were not equipped to deal with (e.g. temp & humidity, local electrical/radio interference, movement of the electrodes on the leaves, etc). If you look through the book and perhaps online sources...perhaps you can see how strict laboratory conditions were used to solicit what I feel were true responses by other investigators. I do believe plants, like all living things, are sentient. [But I felt] that the hype surrounding our project eclipsed the science."

If Lederman has trouble recalling details of the concert and subsequent plant-related activity, well, it wasn't his only project. For one thing, he was developing his own courses for a wholly new Audio Engineering program within the AU Physics Department. The plant amplifier was a game for Lederman. A bigger independent study project was developing the Minitron, an analog tape-based sampling instrument inspired by the Mellotron. Constructed of a bank of 1/4 inch tape cartridges--the kind used by radio stations to record songs in frequent rotation--the Minitron allowed Lederman to trigger multiple sounds at once and create "choirs of voices, string instruments and lots of special effects playable from a 4 octave keyboard," he writes. He first aired the instrument in "Future Concerts" he organized with fellow electronic music students like Ric Wagner, Doug Dawson, and Tommie Carl.

Later in the 70s, Lederman rocked the Minitron in the seven-piece progressive rock group Bazilisk, gigging around the DC area with bands like However, Balloons for the Dog, and Seventh Dawn. Sadly, no Bazilisk music was ever released to the public, although Lederman and Bazilisk guitarist David Meschter (now a sound designer in NYC) got together to sift through "boxes of tapes," culling and remastering enough music for three CDs worth of material. Bazilisk's leader Brett Kerby later attained notoriety for his transgressive performance project Psychodrama, which specialized in taunting the Dischord scene, playing with dead animals on stage, and getting banned from every club they ever played.

Once Bazilisk disbanded, Lederman used the Minitron less frequently, and when he realized it had been "sitting idle for a long time," he sold it to a vintage keyboard collector [www.pmerecords.com/Minitron.cfm]. "The Minitron lived with me for around 30 years," Lederman writes. "My musical interests turned to more 'Organic' sources like the didgeridoo, gongs, bowls, and some sampling processing texture-layering systems. I was ready to let her go."

Lederman left Sounds Reasonable studios in 1977 to work as an "'audio technician' at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Gaullaudet University in NE DC." In 1984, after seven years at Gaullaudet, he left to found his own company, Oval Window Audio [www.ovalwindowaudio.com], which continues his cutting-edge work making revolutionary hearing systems for the deaf. Currently, Lederman runs the company from his base near Boulder, Colorado.

Looking back, it seems difficult to believe the the plant thing actually happened. "Whew...what a trip," he writes. "Different era, yes?"
END