A tree's biography is written in its rings. Not only can growth rings reveal its age, but they also offer glimpses into each year of its life. Trees grow differently based on environmental conditions, so tree rings record data on droughts, floods, fires, even solar flares — a logbook inside every log.
And since tree-trunk samples are shaped like disks, with concentric rings on top, they often resemble phonograph records. The similarity was so uncanny to artist Bartholomäus Traubeck, in fact, that he devised a way in 2011 to play tree rings on a turntable as if they really were vinyl records. (Traubeck says he got the idea from an image on Jethro Tull's 1977 album "Songs from the Wood.")
Known as sonification, this has become a popular way to represent data from lots of natural events, including gamma rays and solar wind. Geiger counters are among the earliest and most useful examples, translating hidden radiation levels into audible clicks. Sonification may not always convey such clarity about data, but it can inspire a deeper reflection on the phenomena behind the numbers. And in this case, it gives dead trees a voice thanks to the universal language of music.
Traubeck first showed off his technique with the video above, "Years," in 2012. He followed with a seven-track digital album of the same title in 2013, featuring music from the rings of spruce, ash, oak, maple, alder, walnut and beech. But now this idea is about to come full circle: In August 2014, Traubeck will release a vinyl record of tree rings being played like vinyl records.
The vinyl version will be available on Traubeck's Bandcamp page in mid-August, he writes, and in addition to its more fitting format, it will include a vinyl-only bonus track from a beech tree. In the meantime, if you're still stumped about how a tree makes music, Traubeck offers this explanation:
"A tree's year rings are analysed for their strength, thickness and rate of growth. This data serves as basis for a generative process that outputs piano music. It is mapped to a scale which is again 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 ruleset of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this ruleset very differently."