The Beautiful Record Made from Tree Rings

A tree's rings are like the grooves of a record, in that they contain information. Bartholomäus Traubeck took this simile to its conclusion.

Jul 13 2014, 9:04pm

A tree's rings are like the grooves of a record, in that they contain information. To dendrochronologists, the scientists who study these rings, their grooves yield clues to the tree's environment, like rain levels, disease, and even forest fires. Light-colored rings indicate fast growth; darker rings indicate times of slower growth. A few years ago, the sound artist Bartholomäus Traubeck began taking this simile more literally, turning the data of tree rings into music.

Using a Playstation Eye camera to see the rings of various tree slices, Traubeck translates this data into the sounds of a piano using the programming platform vvvv, an Arduino microcontroller, and Ableton Live. The result is a haunting neo-classical score, a generative combination representing both natural and highly technological processes.

"Every tree produces a different composition," Traubeck told Michael Byrne when the project began in 2012. "Sometimes it’s more obvious, sometime it’s not. The effect can be examined best by comparing different types of trees—for example, a fir tree sounds a lot more minimalistic and has a very abstract rhythm compared to an ash tree, which is more full sounding and rhythmic and loud."

To Trauback, the project is less about gaining new insight into nature than it is about demonstrating that data comes in many forms—"everything is a database in some way," he said—and that there are many ways to experience it.

"The fact that data can be experienced by looking at its overall structure rather than its content is fascinating to me," he said. "Wood was the perfect material to demonstrate this, because the structure of the data is what actually makes the material in this case, and that you can see it with your bare eye." 

Traubeck continues to create bizarre new sounds; in a recent project, he loops two electric guitars through each other to achieve a nearly perfect resonance. The tree album, Years, featuring seven beautiful recordings from different Austrian trees, generated in Vienna in 2012, is now available digitally and will be released on vinyl, not wood, in August.