Deep Green Cuts: Reading Tree Rings

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A one-of-a-kind record: Bartholmäus Traubeck’s turntable in action

Aside from the gentle rustling of leaves in the breeze or the creaking of a bough in a winter gale, a tree’s character may best be described as “the strong and silent type”–but, as so often is the case with such personalities, they have the most hauntingly beautiful stories to tell.

For nearly a century, dendrochronologists have practiced reading tree rings for clues about the lives of trees. And though the field of study has helped shed light on historic growth cycles for scientists, it’s all been rather dry and clinical. But now, thanks to a special turntable designed to read tree rings as if they were tracks on an LP, a tree’s biography can be heard like its very own discography.

German artist Bartholomäus Traubeck recently debuted a record player he developed that is capable of digitally reading tree slices and translating them into moving piano music. Tree rings, of course, are considered to be annual records of a tree’s growth rate. They offer clues to the hardships and fruitful periods the tree experiences over its lifetime.

The digital arts blog Creative Applications described how Traubeck’s project, fittingly titled “Years,” works: “A tree’s year rings are analyzed for their strength, thickness, and rate of growth. This data serves as the basis for a generative process that outputs piano music based on the year-ring data. [The tree rings] are then mapped to a scale which is defined by the overall appearance of the wood (ranging from dark to light and from strong texture to light texture). The foundation for the music is certainly found in the defined rule set of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this rule set very differently.”

Like a great composition, the sounds produced from reading tree rings are aesthetically beautiful and provide a strangely ethereal glimpse into the otherwise silent life of our planet’s most essential organisms. Listening to their visceral tones, it becomes possible to imagine Earth’s pristine forests not just as places where life can thrive, but also as places where quiet musicians record, in their own way, what it means to be alive.

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