Hearing the Imperceptible as Laraaji Collaborates With Plants in a Church

Welcome to the most curious performance of SXSW Music 2023

Laraaji at Central Presbyterian Church on March 18 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

“I walked in the peace garden … light was everywhere,” proclaimed the man in orange, eyes closed, living in infinity.

Laraaji, the great conductor of the New Age sphere, spent Saturday night surrounded by plants upon the altar of a church. The pews of Central Presbyterian were full for the event, in which the veteran ambient artist collaborated with a potted ivy that had electrodes on its leaves.

No doubt the most peculiar showcase on the schedule for South by Southwest’s Music portion, Saturday’s proceedings were presented by PlantWave – a $300 device that measures a plant’s electrical variations and represents that data in a variety of notes and textures.

Joe Patitucci, CEO of PlantWave makers Data Garden, introduced the performance with an intriguing premise: “When we tune into the energy of the plants, we can tune into realities outside of our perception.”

Arji OceAnanda (l) and Laraaji (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

So what did this ivy plant sound like? To me, synthy spa music, though as soon as Laraaji and his partner – Arji OceAnanda – joined in, it began to feel as their music does: a spiritually pure palette for an experience.

Hand chimes dinged, a stanza from the luminescent gardens of their minds was recited, and Laraaji’s amplified zither was tickled with brushes, then stroked with a bow – all to a drone and pulse triggered, apparently, by chloroplasts moving throughout leaves. As the Brian Eno-approved instrumentalist cycled through intentional poses where he appeared to be holding an invisible ball of energy, the sound of trickling liquid conjured thoughts of wet roots sucking up water like straws. Next, he produced a kalimba, plucking the tone-filled metal tabs while singing in a low register.

With his zither plugged into an array of effects pedals, it became increasingly difficult to discern which sounds were coming from humans and which were processed by plant energy. The stringed instrument – existing in the same genus as autoharps and dulcimers – soon took center stage as the practitioner of laughing meditation, bathed in green and red lights under a crucifix, produced a metal slide part that sounded a bit like a turntablism scratch solo. Then another recitation began the ceremony’s conclusion:

“I walked into the beauty garden,” he said before letting out a big, therapeutic laugh. “The heart was open everywhere.”

Photo by David Brendan Hall

As Laraaji and OceAnanda stood smiling with chimes in hand, Patitucci walked amongst the crowd, presenting the ivy to audience members. The pulse of its musical output accelerated to a degree that seemed to depend on how each person stroked, grabbed, or nuzzled its foliage.

I came into the performance expecting it to be interesting, like I’d be sitting there pondering how this technology turns signals from flora into music, but that didn’t really happen. Instead, it just felt enriching – like any other Laraaji performance, except one of his collaborators had leaves.

Not the kind of music industry plants I was expecting to run into at SXSW.

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SXSW 2023, SXSW Music 2023, South by Southwest 2023, Laraaji, Joe Patitucci, PlantWave, Arji OceAnanda, Central Presbyterian Church

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