Photo by Chris Montgomery for Technical.ly Philly
Sam Cusumano could barely contain his excitement as he watched two of his friends listen to a couple pairs of apples. That’s right, they were listening to apples.
It was all a part of his Electricity for Progress exhibit, showcased at the Philadelphia Art Alliance throughout April. The apples were just one application of what he refers to as “biodata sonification,” which basically means using technology to turn the bio-rythms of natural objects into sound.
“I’m trying to encode very complex data streams using sounds so we can understand the data on a human level,” Cusumano said. “It’s a way of extrapolating these data signals so we can perceive them.”
The second floor of the Rittenhouse Square-based Art Alliance emanated with ethereal, looping music produced by a pair of plants. The technology is called MIDI Sprout: electrodes are attached to the plants, and they pick up subtle fluctuations in galvanic conductance on the surface of the plant’s leaf. These fluctuations are translated to MIDI using Cusumano’s MIDI Sprout, and the signal is then input to a four-track MIDI sequencer. The same MIDI Sprout technology was used on the apples.
“It’s a very dynamic, expressive method of getting information from a plant [that] seems like it’s just sitting there doing nothing,” Cusumano said.
He began developing MIDI Sprout with Data Garden, an artist collective and record label that brings musicians and sound engineers together. It evolved into a Kickstarter campaign, which just finished after raising over $33,000.
Cusumano and the artists at Data Garden realized the potential of biodata sonification devices two years ago, when they debuted the technology at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The MIDI Sprouts were working normally, producing a steady wave of sound that Cusumano and Data Garden expected. And then a young pregnant woman and her husband entered the arrangement:
“She was one of these beautiful, radiant people [whom] you could just feel the life pouring off of. And she approached the room, she stepped into the space, and everything changed; everything was so different. The bass tones were super high-pitched. The frenetic arpeggios were slow, and plotted… it didn’t sound like the synthesizers we thought we had made and had been listening to for so long. And so we all freaked out for quite a while. It was really powerful,” he said. “We tried to keep our cool, and talk to the young couple, and as she left, everything kind of came back into the groove of where it was. It was a really exciting experience for us, and it showed that we were onto something.”
While he was telling this story, the plant on Cusumano’s left – affectionately named “Phil” – stopped producing sound. It’s during these moments where the audience’s effect on the plant can be seen. Or in this case, heard. As soon as Cusumano walked over to Phil, the music started again.
“See? He just wanted some attention,” joked Cusumano.
In addition to the sonification of the apples and the plants, Electricity for Progress featured a room full of kids toys and old Casio electronics that had been circuit-bended to lower their pitch to achieve a slower, grainier resolution. Throughout the exhibit’s run, people were encouraged to play with the toys to create sounds of their own. Cusumano hopes the toys can show people specific examples of how you can change the way electronics work from the inside.
“One thing I always tell people,” Cusumano said, “is to experiment and explore so you can figure out how your tools work. It’s what I’m trying to do with public installations of modified devices… freak people out with it a little bit, and give them exposure so they can explore the pieces themselves.”
Charles Cohen, a Philly-based jazz musician who has been producing music since the ‘70s using a Buchla Music Easel, sees plenty of innovation in the human/machine interaction that engineers like Cusumano cultivate.
“Sam’s not using some futuristic alien technology,” Cohen said. “Quite the contrary: his circuits are drawn from past and current mainstream electronic engineering… but to what and how he interfaces his instruments into the ‘real world’ is the most important aspect of his work in my opinion.”
Growing up near Pottstown, Cusumano always liked taking things apart, especially electronics. One of his earlier memories is dissecting an AM radio and messing with the circuit board, which got him in trouble with his mom, but set him on the path to creative sound engineering.
In high school, he repaired instruments and amplifiers for his musician friends, and continued that trend at the University of Maryland where he would fix distortion pedals and work with the circuitry in mixers at off-campus punk rock shows.
He studied electrical engineering at first, and then switched to computer science, but became dissatisfied with the disparity between what the school taught and its practical use in the real world. Cusumano ended up graduating with a degree in communications, and it shows, as he’s able to effectively explain how his tools work without getting lost in technical jargon.
Influences? He actually cites amateur electronics author Forrest Mims’ instructional manuals (originally offered at Radio Shack) and how they helped him understand how basic electronics functioned.
Now that Electricity for Progress is over, he wants to move into an educational phase of his life. He wants to travel to different places that provide electronic resources, such as makers spaces including the Hacktory and NextFab, and teach people how circuit-bending can be applied creatively to help them implement their ideas.
Cusumano said, “I don’t necessarily have the killer beats, but man, I’ve got the sounds. So we just have to bring minds together in order to build some really killer things.”-30-
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