The Cactus Key Is a Little Sharp

German musician and developer Markus Lindemann wondered if his cactus would change its tuning as it grew. When he picked up the specimen of Ferocactus viridescens at a grocery, he discovered that its spines offered an entire B-major chromatic scale. With five sharps, it’s a hard key for piano accompanists—but an entirely appropriate key for a cactus. It didn’t shift its temperament—cacti grow slowly—but that didn’t stop Lindemann from gigging with the cactus a number of times between 2007 and 2009; including a show featuring “contemplative Christmas carols on the cactus in a Christmas concert with school choir and percussion.” Alas, there has been no cactus music since a community festival in Muelheim-Winkhausen in 2009; the cactus is dead.

I’m reminded of a lovely essay by my friend Toby Lester called “Secondhand Music,” in which Toby describes his discovery of the chords and intervals made by all the ambient hums, beeps, and other tones emitted by devices in our technologized surroundings. Checking the tuning of his office, Toby looked up the intervals in Dercyck Cooke’s The Language of Music to find out what effect its tonalities might be having on his mood:

The musical root, or tonic, of my office is established by the persistent and low-pitched hum of the heater. (I have caught myself at work humming a number of random and unrelated songs, but, significantly, have found that I hum every single one in the key established by the office heater.)

If my office heater provides the tonic, the chord my office plays is the following:

(do) (mi) (fa-sharp)
heater computer dial tone

Look up the meaning of the different intervals in Cooke’s lexicon and you’ll see that my office plays a curious combination of intervals, one joyous and stable (do-mi), another devilish and inimical (do-fa-sharp), and the third (mi-fa-sharp) emotionally neutral. The overall result is an ambiguous chord that, at its upper end, begs for resolution. Could this ambiguity and tension be one reason I so often feel on edge?

Office plants provide a hint of greenness and fresh air in the work environment; perhaps we ought to pick them for their tuning as well. —video via Neatorama

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