Structures of Nature

In music composition and visual arts alike, authors and artists have enlisted the formulaic tendencies of natural phenomena (i.e. weather patterns, animal behaviors, and mold growth) to shape the direction and form of their work. Nick Didkovsky’s MandelMusic, for example, is influenced by fractals, which themselves can be used to interpret naturally occurring structures in snowflakes or weather patterns.

The inherent structures of nature are complex and dynamic. The works in this section are each mediated by those structuring tendencies in fractals, animal behavior, plant growth, and fungus. These projects deploy natural structures with different ends in mind. MandelMusic explores dynamic interactivity, Eduardo Kac’s Essay Concening Human Understanding engages cross-species communication, and Cameron Jones’s molecular-level DJ-ing pioneers the way for nanotechnology in the realm of audio engineering. In each case, these nature-based co-authors produce various, and fascinating, effects.

Eduardo Kac: Essay Concerning Human Understanding


A canary and a plant, divided by half a country, are outfitted with telecommunicative sensors that enable a long-distance conversation. Through sonic information transmitted across phone lines, the plant and bird respond to each other’s behavior. The bird’s call comes in response to the “music” produced by the plant. That latter song is the result of microvoltage emitted from the plant’s leaves, run through a course of software mediations, including a device intended to analyze human brainwaves.

Eduardo Kac, an artist who has worked on the cusp of science and art in other projects, was interested in producing a template for inter-species communication. In this case, even the human viewers of the art piece become participants, affecting both the plant and the canary by their very presence as an audience. 

As the social theorist and linguist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote in his essay, “The Problem with Speech Genres” (1986), any conversation is the dynamic product of the multiple points of reference of its contributors. The conversation, in turn, affects and shifts the current and future behaviors and referent systems of all participants. The complex ordered systems of plant and animal behavior shift and adapt in response to environmental factors, such as the mutual sharing of information across species.

Watch a video.

Visit the site.

Nick Didkovsky: MandelMusic


Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot coined the term fractal in 1975 to describe a mathematics of self-similarity and recursion which can generate complex structures from simple premises (such as the Mandelbrot set, pictured at right).  While fractal mathematics is usually deterministic (i.e. the same generative process will always produce identical results), fractal structures are nonetheless chaotic, complex, and unpredictable. In fact, many computer-based random number generators are based on fractal algorithms.

As Mandelbrot noted in his seminal 1982 book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, fractals are not merely mathematical exercises that sometimes create pretty images; they are closely connected to structures of nature. The self-similar geometry of snowflakes is modeled by Koch’s fractal curves, and the self-similar, branching growth of plants is captured by the recursive iterations of Lindenmayer systems. Other fractals, such as the Mandelbrot set, connect more abstractly to nature in their dependence on the self-similarity that is so prevalent in the natural world.

Numerous composers have used fractals to generate musical material, but most have merely grabbed successive rows of pixels from an image of a Mandelbrot set and mapped their values onto pitch and rhythmic data.

Nick Didkovsky, a New York composer, software designer, and electric guitarist who creates music for concert performances, club events, and interaction over the Internet, developed a more sophisticated representation of fractal processes for his MandelMusic web site. Didkovsky opens up the work to user interaction and provides a framework through which other composers can extend his ideas. Rather than tediously sonifying successive pixels, the web-based software lets users choose a starting point and then listen and watch as the Mandelbrot equation is recursively applied. And rather than creating music from a simple, fixed mapping, Didkovsky has invited other composers to create their own plug-ins to sonify each point as it is visited. To date, ten composers have contributed sixteen plugins exploring a variety of musical techniques.

Visit the site.

Cameron Jones: Molecular Media Project


All fungi grows in predictable patterns. When fungal matter has been purposefully applied to CDs, the results are sonic kaleidoscopes. The music refracts and repeats itself with effects that mimic the complex structures of a fungus, yielding echoes in the refrain and new harmonic or percussive flourishes.

Cameron Jones, a scientist from Swiburne University in Australia, has introduced fungus as a new DJ-ing strategy. Fungus, deliberately grown on CDs, becomes a collaborator. The process is described on

“Using cells and atom clusters to change the way digital music is manipulated and analyzed represents a significant development in audio engineering. This approach is multidisciplinary, and involves biotechnology, applied optics, information science and music composition and theory. This approach is the first reported example of how nanotechnology can be used to manipulate sound at extreme scales of resolution.  Basically the method works by manipulating error correction [D/A coding] by optical interference at the micron and nanoscale.  This causes the laser to read the binary information as a form of nonlinear processing, where errors become building blocks, or new premises, on which to process data.  Under experimental conditions, the method can be used to operate as a chaotic feedback system.  Music can therefore be remixed live by living cells or chemical thin-films — and can be recorded and sequenced using standard audio processing techniques.”

Listen to the music (courtesy of Station Manager Ken of WFMU, New York, and the WFMU Blog). Note that some of the links referenced in this blog entry are no longer active.

Mediation Station is organized by Rebecca Uchill and Jason Freeman for the Perform.Media Festival.