Tuning in to “trees”

Surround-sound installation “trees: Downy Oak” shows you how to listen to the forest—and how tuning in to the woods reveals a bigger story about physiological and climatic cycles in the ecosystem.

Event Details


swissnex San Francisco
730 Montgomery St., San Francisco, 94111 United States


July 25, 2012 - August 18, 2012



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trees: Downy Oak

Opening Reception: “trees”
July 24, 2012, 6.30 pm

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July 26, 2012, 12:45 pm

Art, Technology and the Environment
July 27, 2012, 6:00 pm

Who knew forests could sing? Sure, there’s the occasional rustle of leaves, but dig a bit deeper by needling tiny microphones beneath the surface of trees, and there is indeed much more to listen to, and much more to learn. This is exactly what Marcus Maeder, a researcher at the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology at the Zurich University of the Arts set out to do with Roman Zweifel, a forest and tree expert at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape. The two teamed up on the research project “trees: Rendering Ecophysiological Processes Audible,” which they’ve transformed into a three-dimensional audio installation at swissnex San Francisco from July 25 through August 18.

The resulting trees: Downy Oak is a prototype of a three-dimensional audio matrix currently being developed for data sonification experiments. A grid of omnidirectional loudspeakers helps bring together and analyse plant measurements and recordings, and creates a walk-in forest of sound based on data obtained from a single type of tree, the Downy Oak. This model serves as a tool for scientists to analyse patterns, links, and derivations between known sets of data. But it also helps the general public gain deeper insight into the workings of nature.

Like most bodies, trees vibrate. This vibration equals sound. A myriad of other processes inside trees are equally noisy, like water or sap flowing through the organism. All of these sounds are tied to the larger cycles of life. Trees that age or dry up, for example, hum to a different tune than younger plants filled with water. How trees sound is directly related to moisture, rain, sunlight, and the quality of nutrients in the soil and carbon dioxide in the air. Drawing an acoustic portrait of trees can therefore help us better understand how these plants respond to climatic processes.

In trees: Downy Oak, the sound of strings stand in for sunrays, and other foreign frequencies map non acoustic growth processes that are an essential to the trees’ portraits. Blending these human-made sounds with those recorded in nature is akin to how neuroscientists paint in the connections they wish to track in the brain, blurring the line between natural and the artificial. Have Maeder and Zweifel provided an adequate acoustic representation of the tree soundscape? Exhibition visitors are invited to answer that question for themselves on the blog running in tandem with the acoustic show.


Marcus Maeder

Marcus Maeder studied art at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Lucerne, in Switzerland, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Hagen, in Germany. Maeder runs the music label domizil, which he co-founded in 1996 with Bernd Schurer. He has worked as an editor and producer for the Swiss radio station DRS and has been working as a curator and research associate at the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology since 2005. His artistic work focuses mainly on sound art, and on media art extensions of computer music. Maeder has also written on a number of topics in the fields of sound art and digital media.


Roman Zweifel

Roman Zweifel studied biology at the University of Zurich and at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), where he received a Ph.D. for his ecophysiological work, The rhythm of trees. Zweifel’s research has focused on whole tree gas exchange, mechanisms of water flow and water storage in trees, and using wood anatomy to link water with growth and carbon balance. He is significantly involved in how continuously measured stem radius changes are mechanistically coupled to growth and tree water relations, and his current research activities are focused on linking tree physiological processes with the processes on the forest ecosystem level.


Photo: Myleen Hollero