I’m currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972) – a science fiction novel about the inhabitants of planet Earth colonizing another planet to satisfy their consumption of wood. The inhabitants of that other planet, the Astheans, come unavoidably into contact with their colonizers, the people of Earth, and grapple with their cosmology. The Astheans attempt to understand why their colonizers are clearing their world – the forest – away and why they are preparing for the “arrival of their wives” and future colonization with destruction. The Astheans are unable to understand the idea of nature being a resource, as well as the idea that there is a world beyond the forest for the people of Earth. The world and the forest are synonyms for the Astheans. Your program Conference of Trees seems speculatively to interweave fact and fiction: you combine different materials and forms of knowledge, which cross the modern distinctions between science and myth. Could it be said that The Word for World is Forest – i.e. that the forest is a fundamental condition for the world – is your concern here?

I’m very familiar with what you are describing and it was surely an important reason for addressing the topic of “trees,” that’s to say, the love for the forest as a habitat. The forest, above all is an “unspoiled world” for me, a world without which we humans could not survive. It is what makes life on planet Earth possible. I think it’s fundamental to see the tree as a symbol of life, or to see the “forest as the world,” since the tree, as a biological organism, creates the richness of life. In the process, trees also communicate in an entirely cooperative manner within their environment: every creature and biological organism that is in contact with a tree remains healthy and in sync because of this contact. This is something I have experienced since my childhood: the forests and trees were a protected space for me to enter. It was important for me to be alone in the woods, even as a way to survive the destructive elements in my environment. To that extent, this topic has been with me for a long time.

Recently, I have become more aware of the topic since reading Erwin Thomas’ Die geheime Sprache der Bäume: Die Wunder des Waldes für uns entschlüsselt (The Secret Language of Trees: The Wonder of the Forest Decoded for Us, 2018). The owner of an organic food store in Kreuzberg gave this book to me. He had asked me whether I was interested in becoming a member of his lending library, which meant I was to borrow a book, read it, then return to discuss the effect it had on me. I followed his instructions and promised to make a piece of music about it. During my research, I came across a very interesting researcher on the topic: Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia. In her TED Talk How Trees Talk to Each Other, she describes forests as family structures. The goal of the talk was to get through to people and make them more aware of the issue. In reality, the described phenomenon is much more complex than a human family structure.

How did you come up with the title? After all, a “conference” sounds like a deliberate gathering and not like everyday communication. For me, this invokes current discussions about nonhuman actors like nature having a political voice and a form of representation bestowed upon them, just as the Ecuadorian Constitution did in 2009.

While doing research, I read The Conference of Birds – a work by Farīd-al-dīn Aṭṭar, a Sufi mystic from the twelfth century, about the coming apocalypse and the enlightenment of the birds. During the creative process of Conference of Trees, this book became a further foundation for the ambience of the piece. And yes, it would be desirable for the enormous complexity that exists in forests – and particularly in ancient forests – to be granted fundamental rights and legal status by the state. Strictly speaking, the message is that trees should be perceived as a tangible and highly intelligent life form. In the piece, we attempt to give trees a human sense of hearing as well as a musical language. But sometimes it also feels like the trees have invited us to a conference they are holding on civilization’s destructive forces and its underlying value system. They seem to be saying, “Protect us, and use us more intelligently! Plant more trees! We are life and we can provide it!” They are active actors on our planet that have been sharing information at conferences for millennia. Conference of Trees is something like a space where the basic human need for meaningful coexistence can be established again. I would even say that I have tried to make this conference sound the despair I feel over my own role. Spending a night outdoors under a tree without a light source or technological device can be a very enlightening experience to understand what’s happening in the forest. It challenges what shapes our current mechanistic image of humankind at a number of levels.

Recently the dominant feeling has been that the so-called West’s civil values should be called into question, and, in fact, need to be, given our current ecological and political situation. How does this feeling translate into your role as a musician? I find the connection you are suggesting very important and intriguing. 

Spending so much time in front of the computer and working with electronic machines started feeling a bit bleak to me. It also didn’t make sense to me to keep working on music alone in highly technical spaces. I wanted to find a way to spend more time outdoors and to legitimize it with art. I wanted to work with wood more to build the sound boxes you hear in the concert. It became clear to me during my intense research that a force, an ethic, and a system of values underpin a forest’s ecosystem and that these have very little to do with the Western value system: life is not possible through competition, rather only through community and vigorous cooperation. I found this idea healing and wanted to bring it into the music. At first, I limited this desire to only the subject matter and people I’m working with on the project. During this process, I spent time in very different parts of the world and learned how deeply inscribed the knowledge of plants and the exchange of information within an ecosystem are in the making of instruments in various indigenous cultures. At the same time, it is also fascinating to discover the extent to which technology has enabled us to allow plants to speak. Having said that, I definitely want the wood to be able to speak for itself through itself. I also wanted to become a tree myself and enable a group of musicians to become trees as well. Instead of simply playing a set of data mirroring cell biology, the musicians should adopt the characteristics of the plants in the way they play. Instead of generating only superficial attention to notations, we want to experience the sense of harmony that things express to us, as well as how something resonates from the material and what it does to us.

To me, that sounds like a mixture of Gilles Deleuze and a somewhat Romantic image of the forest. Does this healing, organic dimension of the forest have anything to do with the reality of forests today? Keywords: monocultures, the death of forests and insects … I only say this because, for me, what you are suggesting oscillates between being something Romantic and something constructivist, even technophile. I find this connection fascinating, since these issues are understood normally as opposites. Can you explain this, perhaps with reference to your stage set and costumes? Also, how does one actually become a tree?

The priorities in modern forestry are the economic benefits for communities and forest owners. Logging is a very brutal and fully automated process with robots. The best option for logging in Germany is to follow the so-called “Lübeck model.” One goes to extreme lengths with this model to ensure the maintenance of the family structure and to avoid the felling of so-called mother trees. These trees which contain vital information about the quality of the soil, are essential to all other organisms around them, which, for instance, facilitates a quick recovery from a drought. This information gets passed along to other trees and organisms. To give an example of how you could become a tree: I recorded the videos, which you see projected on the tent onstage, in the forests where I conducted my research, such as in Kellerwald, a national park in Northern Hesse. In calm places such as this, I shoot the film of the forests and the trees from the inside looking out with a hand-held camera, without a tripod. This is an exercise in being as calm as a tree for as long as possible. I attempt to make a movie about trees as a tree. I try to imagine the depths of my root system as well as the breadth of my branches growing out into the sky. In the projection, you can sometimes see my hand slightly shaking or even the blood pumping through my veins. I look through the camera, which creates distance and proximity simultaneously. Sometimes my arm gets tired. Then I hold the camera but look above the lens with my eyes, moving back and forth between the perspectives. This is an act of contemplation. One begins to perceive the subtlest of movements. If I’m in this state for a longer period of time, I can perceive a language from inside. When something starts making a noise this is deeply thrilling. I translate the sounds I perceive from inside the forest on the instruments, some built for the occasion, and for some I work with the wood myself. Maybe this is romantic. Maybe it’s constructivist. In any case, it’s pure experience. Alfred North Whitehead, right?

Close. It’s William James. Nevertheless, from my perspective, pure experience and constructivism fit together well. I find it very plausible to describe your work as an attempt to move towards pure experience. Above all else, this includes an attempt to move beyond cultural, biological and individual habits of perception. Doing such is a lot of work. However, I’d say that the ways we think and act will never change without altering the ways we feel and perceive. I think artistic practices today could take on an interesting task by focusing on what lies beyond the artistic subject and what it communicates or expresses. Traditionally, spiritual practices like meditation work to transcend one’s own human and cultural habits of perception. Besides, what you’ve just described sounds like a meditative exercise. Of course, achievable by other sciences also, which in many ways go beyond our everyday experience or even run counter to it.

My interest is to look beyond visible material. I’m interested in its internal forces and molecular structures. The sound in Conference of Trees is preoccupied with the organic and biomorphic flow as well as with fractal, spiraling movements. Demonstration of our transformation onstage plays out by wearing “forest ghost” costumes and masks: we transform from a sort of animalistically animated biomass into intermediate creatures that are human beings, but also perhaps mediators between worlds. As ritual garments, the kimonos that appear at one point are covered with round mirrors. In shamanism, these mirrors represent seeing the other world. This seeing also leads to knowledge and wisdom. Underneath this are the stand-up collar shirts that people began wearing around the time of the Bauhaus. At this point, we just look like a classical ensemble or a group of scientists. But the shirts are actually from Sri Lanka. If you look more closely, you can see that they are very colorful and shiny and are most likely making reference to classical Indian music. Underneath this layer, we’re wearing T-shirts that have a circle on the chest and the stomach. For me, this is the resolution of the theme as well as its conclusion. My aim here is to empower spectators to immerse themselves in the various perspectives and to experience the subject of the forest in a very unusual manner.

You bring together a number of highly heterogeneous forms of knowledge in the Conference of Trees as well as the outcome of a great deal of research. You attempt to bring heterogeneous forms of knowledge into contact with one another to see whether they can communicate with each other. This is despite the ubiquity of the modern divisions of faith and knowledge, fact and fiction, nature and culture, etc. While doing this, you are also remaining true to a tradition and a medium, in your case music, which in turn was a primary concern of the working group, Formations, of which you are a member. What has this immersion in other fields meant for your artistic practice?

Plant communication is a very specific subject that can illustrate current social issues very well. The choreographer Anna Halprin, for example, asks: How can I make an impact and bring about change in my social sphere with my practice? How can I enter the right frame of mind even in the earliest phase of developing the work? These questions can be applied just as easily to music as to dance. The Conference of Trees becomes an immersive work. And as a commissioned work, the focus was always on conveying the working process. What I learned from Formations more than anything else was to ask the right questions. As an individual awarded a great amount of trust, this made it easy for me to include deep processes of knowledge production in my work. Perceiving one’s work on a meta-level has been and is very helpful.

Thank you for talking to me! I’ll be looking forward to the concert.