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"Music is one thing our planet produces while rotating": Bottlesmoker play electronic music for plants, by plants

The Indonesian duo tap into indigenous Sundanese traditions & modern-day scientific research to give you Gaea goodness through musical flora

  • Miki Kitasako
  • 29 October 2021

Inspired by the green planet that surrounds us, Indonesia electronic duo Bottlesmoker have created a musical sanctuary that calls to mother nature. Duo Anggung Suherman (Angkuy) and Ryan Adzani (Nobie) from Bandung believe in a mantra that music should be shared as “freely as breathing air” and with that, their music lives on the culture of openness — it’s absolutely free.

They’ve reached back far beyond their ancestors to grasp traditional rituals and earthy (literally) sounds that derive from a mixture of indigenous Indonesian rhythms which they’ve infused with modern-day technology such as synthesizers. The musical journey that guides them most recently highlights scientific plant research such as biodata to working with ethnomusicologist Palmer Keen, which has been the main feature in their most recent tour called Plantasia, in which they performed concerts for plants.

From soothing ambient sounds to audiovisual experiences that match their plant-friendly vibes, Bottesmoker talked to us about the processes in creating these eclectic sounds, which involves having conversations with their earthly counterparts and the flora that allows us to habituate on the terrestrial sphere we call home.

Also, they’ve given us a couple of hacks to elevate our daily plant-care routine.

What’s the best thing about living in Bandung?

Bandung is surrounded by mountains, and there’s a beautiful spot for hiking, which overlooks the city lights from the hills. Geographically, Bandung has very beautiful views and a very chill vibe, which is convenient for leisurely activities. As well as that, we love the fact that Sundanese cuisine is very comforting and tasty. We still don’t know where else we would like to live, other than Bandung.

And the worst?

Waaaah Bandung definitely has a traffic problem, especially on weekends! The people who reside in Jakarta enjoy coming to Bandung as it’s one of their favourite leisurely destinations because of its surroundings, so it does get crowded.

Another thing would be the surroundings in regards to the city’s planning — the sidewalks, electrical wires and traffic make it all so messy.

Take us out for a night in Bandung — from dinner, drinks to party and after-party?

Geez, we're not a "night out" type of guys haha! We usually have private parties, dinner in a villa or at a hill. We cook for ourselves and get the party started ourselves — but if you ask for a recommendation, we can take you to the highland areas to try authentic indigenous Sundanese cuisine, there are plenty of options for this. You can enjoy a breezy night while looking at the city lights.

We love it most when…

...we explore the North and South of Bandung; it’s chilly and we love the cold air. We would go hiking, check out the hills, drink cold beer and smoke something.

Bottlesmoker, what does it mean?

The name comes from one of our habits in the studio. We are always smoking cigarettes and throwing the ashes into an ashtray made from a bottle. The name is simple; it’s just what we do in the studio. We collect bottles that are filled with cigarette ashes, or you can consider it as “bong” as well haha!

"We really adore the concept of free culture and open knowledge. We write our music with our hearts and soul but a lot of it comes from research and experiments. We consider our music a form of knowledge that everyone can enjoy without restriction."

A lot of your music is released free of charge. Why did you choose this way and do you have any advice on others who would like to follow in your footsteps but be able to survive in a commercialised world as well?

We really adore the concept of free culture and open knowledge. We write our music with our hearts and soul but a lot of it comes from research and experiments. We consider our music a form of knowledge that everyone can enjoy without restriction. Also when we share it, it feels like we are spreading good to one another and people are able to use it as they wish — as freely as breathing air. Free doesn't mean gratis, it means freedom, and from that freedom, we successfully build a very wide connection and friendship with others. Maybe we’re not directly collecting the revenue from it, but then again we can survive from what we share in music. We also receive funding from commercial brands, art projects and even the government.

Consistency is the key that makes us survive! We pour our whole heart into our music and our songwriting is more philosophical rather than aesthetic. The energy and spirit that’s within are very important to create music that is meaningful for others, even if our songs are instrumental and don't explicitly talk about something. Our background in journalism and art also makes us familiar with arranging a production timeline and how to release it to the public.

What’s the greatest lesson you both have ever been taught?

Discipline, which is something that always comes second when you are in Indonesia. Being on time is the first; we learn a lot when we work with foreign artists or event organizers. Everything will be easier if we have discipline — it is very important for us and holds a very valuable lesson. We also learned so much from traditional music and local wisdom, and about how discipline and honouring the universe has made us realize that the process of work itself is a process of life.

You’ve used plants to create music, and we’re dying to know how this happens — so just how do plants create their sound? Do plants talk to us?

Aaah this is my favourite thing to talk about! So basically we translate a plant’s biodata and convert it into MIDI files. Then we connect it to an instrument and voila the plants are singing through a synthesizer as a medium. So the sounds that you hear are not literally produced by the plants per se, but the plants are "singing" by playing instruments. To answer your question, "Do plants talk to us?" — yes, indeed they are communicating, not only with us but also with everything in the universe. They can move and feel things, therefore, with the device that we invented, they can communicate and they can be heard literally through musical notes. From that, we can infer whether they feel uncomfortable, dehydrated or happy.

#GreenRoom What’s the relationship between music and the planet?

Nobie: The earth is rotating on its axis to carry the life inside it. "That" life is the first to make noise on our earth. We do believe that each and every planet has its own noises or its own "song". So music is one thing our planet produces while rotating. The earth has frequencies and noises that are useful to create harmonization in life that it carries. The sound of the birds, wind, rivers and rain is cantillation that is naturally produced and highlights a symbol of harmony. Basically, we can communicate with mother nature through music which is taught by our ancestors — a musical ritual used as a medium to communicate with mother nature. Get to know our earth, absorb its energy and pour it into music.

During the pandemic, you played a few concerts called Plantasia with a crowd of plants. I’ve read that this lead to an increase in plant growth, fertility and even adjusted the colour of the leaves. Can you elaborate on what you learned from this experience and what were some of your actual observations?

Actually, at the beginning of our Plantasia concert, we didn't focus on the results on whether our music would influence the plants or not. Basically, we created a composition to reconstruct the sounds that plants go through every day in their natural habitat. This idea was born to respond to the pandemic, as we couldn't do in-person concerts. So if we want to continue to do shows and even tours during the pandemic, we have to create a show that includes proper health protocols that are safe.

Finally, an idea emerged when we read the book Hallucinogenic Plants by Richard Schultes. In the first half, he wrote that human civilization used to have special treatments on plants because they were considered as helpers to communicate with their creator. So they placed the plants in a certain place, played them a song and even made offerings — which are considered special.

After reading this, we remembered that the Sundanese community also had special treatments for plants, such as ‘Tarawangsa’, which is a special treatment on rice that is played from planting to harvesting. There is also ‘Karinding’ which is always used as a treatment for plants when growing food crops. We finally remembered Mort Garsson and his album Mother's Earth of Plantasia, who dedicated the album to plants. From here we were determined and more confident to create a plant-only show.

We realized that plant owners' are very possessive of their plants, so when the idea of making a plant concert came up, we had to make music that was suitable for plants. So we didn’t start with creating music for plant growth, but just music that made them comfortable. Finally, we did research, read scientific journals about music suitable for plants and combined it with data from interviews from indigenous Sundanese people about these rituals. It turned out that there were similarities between modern studies of music for plants and these were done by the indigenous communities such as making repetitive tones, playing string elements, using Earth’s frequency of 5000hz and many more components that we formulated as a result of the research.

We didn't expect it to have such a good impact on the plants. We only applied the results of the scientists' research and prolonged the rituals of our indigenous people with the involvement of plants. So it was them who actually succeeded in doing the research, we just re-applied it.

Can you give us some unique advice on how to take care of your plants?

Okay, so this is a treatment that we invented and used in the Plantasia concert: play tracks from the album Konser Plantasia every day for three months, before 10 am or before 3 pm, and play it on a full range speaker. Plants have very sensitive emotions, so it’s better to talk to them, touch them with all your love and affection. Try it! For the other basic things, we think you would already know which is like choosing the right growing media according to the plant variety, water them according to their needs — the main thing is to simulate the real habitat of those plants.

What is the most unique/strange object you’ve used to create music outside of the conventional musical instruments you used? And how does an inanimate item create its sound?

Plants themselves are unique, each variety has different unpredictable moves. We once made music out of rocks; it came out way more mystical than we thought haha. We also made music from a train. Basically, any object can be turned into a musical instrument. Technically, if it's a living thing, we just need to translate the data from the living thing and then convert that to data that can be played through a computing device or a musical instrument like MIDI files. The translated data represents bio-data, like its hydration levels, oxygen levels, the moves that were made, etc. On the other hand, if it's a non-living thing, it is important to make them vibrate. The vibrations are translated into computable data whether on a laptop/computer or synthesizer and that triggers notes in other forms of sound.

Your album Parakosmos is about a journey of a person surrounded by the harmony of nature in contrast to two opposite things. What does this philosophy mean to both of you and how is this actually translated to the music on the album?

Parakosmos consist of two words; Paradox (things that are opposites; day-night, male-female, dark-light, etc.) and cosmos (cosmology; universe). We believe that in the universe there is always a form of dualism — pairs. We tried to include dualism in Parakosmos, one of which is the relationship between mortals and their creator. We found it in rituals from our ancestors. They happen to have their own way of communication with the almighty by reading the universe. So the album is a translation of rituals in Indonesia which is the way mortals communicate with their creators.

An example of the translation process is the Bei Mau ritual in the song 'Bei Mau Loops', the ritual plays repetitive music and moves, then we translate it by composing a repetitive (looping) melody. Also, Bei Mau includes dances with a particular tempo for each dance, so we use those tempos as our BPM to make beats. We analyze the meaning and philosophy behind the ritual, and we tailor it into the structure of our music, weaving the prayer into a chanteuse of hope and so on. So that's how Parakosmos was born, we reconstructed the rituals and they became songs that can be enjoyed on the dancefloor with carrying the spirits and energies of the Almighty while creating a new form of rituals for urban people.

If you could be a plant, which plant would you be and why?

Nobie: Lily. They can live in three different biomes simultaneously — the flowers are up in the air, the leaves and branches are in the water and the roots are in the ground (the floor of the water). Things that are in the pattern of three are very closely related to our indigenous Sunda traditions.

Angkuy: Monstera. A Monstera has roots that grow around the branches (clinging roots) that make the plant hold on to other plants and grow media. Also, Monstera’s can live in harmony with other plants that make their lives better. Like us, we live for wealth and health and we live in harmony alongside others, and we even we honour our elders and ancestors.

Having been inspired by ethnomusicologist Palmer Keen and his field recordings in his Aural Archipelago project, how did this influence your own exploration in music?

In our country, it is very rare to see or discover a person that is so in-depth and detailed when documenting indigenous cultures or traditional rituals. So when we finally got to meet Palmer in person, he answered all our questions. We finally found rituals that haven't been exposed to the public, even ones that are nearly extinct. We realize that traditional music has become a big framework for today’s modern music — especially electronic music because we found many repetitive patterns and familiar rhythmic patterns that have been practised by our ancestors. It indeed broadened our horizons and we were inspired by the documents that had been archived by Palmer Keen.

If Bottlesmoker could play with anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would it be?

Nobie: Ryuichi Sakamoto

Angkuy: Múm

How do you conceptualize the audiovisual experiences in your music and performances? You’ve also used theatrical elements in one of your shows entitled Hypnagogic Journey, how did that come about?

All our albums have a distinctive live performance concept. Instrumental music makes us deliver meaning through theatrical acts. In ‘Hypnagogic’ we used pantomime, contemporary dance, and we experimented with the stage of arts so that the "feeling" and the message from our song is properly delivered to the audience. In Indonesia or other countries, electronic music is closely related to the hedonistic lifestyle of sexy dancers, clubs, parties, etc. It pumps us to give more references to the public, especially through Indonesian electronic music as it can be performed with a poem in an acrobatic form, from schools to museums.

You began creating bedroom music in the early days with FruityLoops (a DAW previously known as FL Studio) then moved to creating commercial radio jingles before discovering electronic music and now the circuit bending method. Can you explain what the circuit bending method is and how did the latest shift come about and are there any elements of the past that are reflected in your sound today?

Circuit bending came into our heads when we stumbled upon our musical skills and the access to hefty and expensive music gear. So we tried to forget the experimental side of things, indeed that time was the time when every idea was answered, but it didn't last too long. We don't want to be in the same pond for too long, it was only an outlet for our desires even though it was very exciting.

Circuit bending basically changes the component’s path, which will then bring up new random tunes and notes. Later on, in the midst of the onslaught of sophisticated technology, we re-traditionalized electronic music by making sounds from surrounding objects such as stones, tables, books, kitchen utensils, shoes etc. And today, we explore the sounds from nature including plants. Yes, we are no longer use the method, but we still preserve the output quality of circuit bending instruments and apply it to our recent musical works.

You’ve studied and used many traditional Indonesian rituals in your tracks like music, movement and art all the way through to the reasonings. Why is this an important layer to you and could you break down the process of how you implement culture into your music?

This thing is important, unfortunately, we are a bit too late in terms of realisation. Our exotic indigenous vibes are so meaningful; its traditional philosophy of life covers so many aspects — music happens to be one of them. We're trying to adopt the percussive and rhythmical patterns and when we sit in the studio, we're guided by those indigenous elements so that the substance of the traditional music can be felt within our music.

One of the methods we use is to deconstruct traditional music and apply it to modern-day instruments through strict traditional music assessments, this is so the spirit and energy project vibrantly through our music and the traditional elements holds an important role not just as a "sticker" for aesthetics purposes but so the melodies and tunes that are played by our ancestors carry specific meaning and purposes. Like the strum of the kecapi or the vibrations of the gamelan, both can lower your emotions, blood pressure and even soothe your mind.

"The strum of the kecapi or the vibrations of the gamelan, both can lower your emotions, blood pressure and even soothe your mind."

#GreenRoom What’s Bottlesmoker’s role in shaping the future of this planet?

We try to spread the spirit of sharing music! The concept of sharing is very much needed as long as the earth has life in it. Share something you've done with all your heart. Spread music that is meaningful to your life. It's cliché but this is our energy to continue to survive.

Nasi Goreng vs Babi Guling

Nasi Goreng!

The world is ending in apocalypse fashion and you can add only one of your tracks to a time capsule to be sent into space, which song would you choose and why?

'Bonet Circle (Parakosmos)'. In this song, there is an adaptation of the Bonet ritual. The song is performed by people in a circle and they sing at the same tempo. The lyrics are about the gratitude to mother nature that gives us life. Through this track, if we want to confide with life on other planets, it shows that there is a planet called Earth with a beautiful realm, an abundance of crops and its people are prosperous and live in harmony with mother nature. We thank the universe through this song and would like to celebrate life with kindness!

Listen to Konser Plantasia here

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