EDM Maniac Interview: Modern Biology Talks Bioelectricity, Synths and Plant Music

Image of Modern Biology from CDC website

In a world where music production consists of instruments, DJ controllers, and DAW systems, Tarun Nayar––also known as Modern Biology––creates electronic soundscapes with plant life and modular synths.

Nayar plugs into fruits, mushrooms, and other forms of plant life, producing what he calls “plant music.” But, among scientists, this process of creating ambient sounds through electrodes, synthesizers, and plants has been existing since the 70s.

It’s a popular practice that’s used to reconnect with nature. Nayar, who is also a former biologist, was recently discovered through his popular TikTok videos where mushrooms and synthesizers harmonize beautifully, creating tranquil sounds. 

This past weekend, Northern Nights Music Festival took place in the redwoods of Northern California, where he experimented with a cannabis plant in front of an audience, not knowing what sounds would be assembled.

Taking it one step further, he called up five volunteers to the stage while asking them to hold hands and form a half circle in front of his equipment. Then, he had a person on each end hold an electrode, which would cause a current to flow through the volunteers into his synthesizers and create note changes. 

It’s safe to say that they were pleasing to the ear. Modern Biology sat with EDM Maniac before his third live performance to talk about the science behind this wonder.  

“Bioelectric changes in the mushroom trigger note changes in the synth.” – Tarun Nayar

EDM Maniac: Tarun, you’re a former biologist, but what drew your inspiration to combine biology and sound for the creation of plant music?

Modern Biology: I mean, honestly, it was not intentional. It was the culmination of just playing music and thinking about nature. I spent most of the pandemic up in the northern Gulf Islands, my fiancé and I have a little cabin out there, and I was just with all my synthesizers out in nature. 

People have been messing around with this particular idea for a couple of decades now, in various ways, but I became fascinated with synthesis, in general. I started building my own modular synthesizers and was thinking a lot about electricity.

The plant stuff was one of the experiments I was working on through the course of the pandemic. I was, like, posting little videos to the internet and shit just went totally crazy.

EDM Maniac: The video that went viral was the one where you create music with synthesizers and mushrooms. Mushrooms are known to be healing and spiritual, would you say there’s a sense of spirituality in what you do?

Modern Biology: Yeah, I like to think of what I do as some sort of a meeting place between biology, sound, and spirituality. My background is Indian, and the science of vibration is something that’s very profound in the east.

My work in synthesis has shown me the universality of electricity and vibrations as a language. So, tapping into the natural world, whether it’s sunlight or plants or mushrooms, [it] helps me see the unity and how, really, there’s not much of a difference between us and nature. Actually, there’s no difference.

There’s this really great quote by my friend Merlin Sheldrake, who wrote the book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, a mushroom book. He says “Nature is a process,” you know? We’re not independent entities, we’re just systems through which matter is flowing. So, at some level, whether you’re calling it spirituality or science, the two come together. 

EDM Maniac: You started touring as Modern Biology this year. Usually, you create these sounds in the comfort of your own space… I’m curious to know how the experience of playing with plants in front of others has been for you?

Modern Biology: That’s a great question. Yeah, this is, like, my third show *laughs. I think I’m still figuring it out. I’m an ex-touring musician. I was on the road for like 15 years with my band, so I’m sort of used to performing, but it’s really exciting to be so in the moment because you never know what’s going to happen [when creating music with plants]. 

I have a rough idea of how I want things to flow, but turning a 15-second [viral] video into a 45-minute set was definitely a challenge. So, it’s been interesting to dive deeper and think about how it can be more experimental.

Tarun Nayar plugging synthesizers into seaweed.

EDM Maniac: Why do you believe it’s important to reconnect back with nature? 

Modern Biology: The impetus behind this project is about protecting wild spaces. I’m heavily influenced by nature, so a big part of the proceeds will go to support certain charities that protect growing forests.

I mean, I think words fall short. I believe nature is the way back to balance and nature already knows how to balance. There’s so much we can learn from sitting with her and listening, and this project is really about that.

We are not the center of the universe. Like, we are incidental, and if we go away the plants would be totally fine. There’s a lot we need to learn.

EDM Maniac: Could you walk me through the technical process of creating music with bioelectricity and synthesizers?

Modern Biology: There are a lot of ways to bio-sonify. The way I do it, [like what you’ve seen] on the internet and in my live shows, is again, nothing I’ve invented. It’s been around for a long time and it’s based on lie detector technology that’s been around for years.

What you’re doing is sending a very small current through an organic body. Like, a human or a plant, and that current will waver in intensity over time. The wavering is caused by bioelectric changes in the plant or human body, so as we’re going about our process of living and breathing, it’s going to change the impedance a little bit.

So, as the impedance changes, we’re translating those currents into note changes in the synthesizers. You’re listening to a biological process through music.

Interested in seeing how Modern Biology creates music with mushrooms? Check out the video below.

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