Jellyfish Jams and Heartbeat Songs

Jellyfish Jams and Heartbeat Songs

By Rozena Crossman

SourceMuriel de Seze/Getty


Now you can hear what it sounds like when artists and scientists share the same creative energy.

By Rozena Crossman

In simpler times, artists depicted the world around them with oil paints, charcoal and pastels, or maybe a sculptor’s knife and stone. Over in Paris, Lia Giraud has found a new medium: pond scum.

Say hello to biohacking, the phenomenon that might source your bathtub’s mildew for the next Billboard Hot 100 hit. Already familiar in many disciplines, including medicine and ecology, biohacking — the idea that science should be available to all citizens — is rising in popularity among artists and musicians. Giraud, for one, used algae instead of photographic paper to create living pictures. And now she’s figuring out how different vibrations cause certain plants to move, essentially making them dance. Others, like Slovenian artist Robertina Šebjanič, are riffing off the movements of wildlife. In her case, it’s jellyfish, where the data from their movements is captured with a Raspberry Pi camera, then translated into sound. (Back off, PETA. No jellyfish were hurt in the making of this pop song.)

Artists have always engaged with nature, skeptics might say. True. But this isn’t a new wave of landscape paintings; rather, it’s a convergence of what have historically been two strictly parallel lanes, biology and music. And this realm includes more than just MFA types or disc jockeys with a few followers on Spotify. BioBeats, for example, includes advisers such as author Deepak Chopra and funders such as actor Will Smith; the company is behind the technology in an app called Pulse, which lets people place their finger over a phone’s camera to create music based on their heartbeat. 

The result is that people will have to be more and more extreme to be noticeable. 

Robbi Pinkerton, musician 

Other artists not only support the DIY revolution but also actively participate in it. Imogen Heap, for one, confirms to OZY that she previously visited the MIT Media Lab, where she met Elly Jessop, inventor of the VAMP glove. It connects an action (like the wave of a hand or the flick of fingers) to a musical effect. As Heap explains it, the glove gave her multiple ways to make her music and the technology she uses “so much more human.” More recently, she’s gathered a team to build a handmade system that makes music with gestures — the MiMu gloves — which 15 people have paid £5,000 each (more than $7,700) for while getting technical support and a weekend workshop with Heap. “No two gloves play the same,” she tells OZY.

Meanwhile, when Šebjanič isn’t busy jamming with jellyfish-inspired beats, she sometimes joins the Theremidi Orchestra, a group of audiovisual biohackers who tinker with homemade electronic instruments. One such device, the Theremini 4011, senses movements of the human hand and changes frequencies accordingly.

Then there are the people trying to make music using the human body. The Danish headphone company Aiaiai created a project earlier this year called Real Booty Music, where wires were hooked up to a dancer’s derriere. Music samples were triggered as the dancer twerked, then DJs jumped in with more sounds, resulting in a track — made “by the booty, for the booty” — called “Cascavel.” What does ass music sound like? Well, this track boasts a strong rhythm that changes as the dancer switches up her moves, and there’s plenty of juice to fuel a packed club for just over three minutes with layers of electronic sounds and a breathy voice of a woman who screams, “Ay, papi.”

Chances are, you’re not going to hear any of this music next time you go out dancing. And you’re probably not going to book a crew of biohackers to play at your wedding. As more and more people start making digital music, though, musician Robbi Pinkerton, a former member of the electronic group Machines in Heaven, thinks we’ll begin hearing more far-out tunes — but their quality will also suffer given that the pool of musical talent will become diluted with so many contributors adding to the noise. “The result is that people will have to be more and more extreme to be noticeable,” he says.

That’s not exactly music to our ears, but biohacking experts argue this is all a good thing since it’s part of a broader movement to make biology more accessible outside the hallowed halls of academia and the guarded walls of corporations. After all, Hacene Lahreche, chief operating officer of a new biohacking lab space in Paris called La Paillasse, believes “artists and scientists have the same creative energy.”