A SKIN THAT SINGS: Movement, Mycelium, and Corporeal Choirs
Scattered throughout the worlds of soil and sprig, there is family of small creatures whose lives emanate both sensation and transformation. Carved into their flesh are brown waves of Earth, and beautiful wrinkles of wisdom. Not far from the communities they nurture and grow, are towering trees that span generations. This is the landscape — and soundscape — of the Mycelia. And at the heart of where they live, everyone sings, everything resonates in the rippling sounds of soma and skin.
Beaming with vitality and burrowed deep within the Earth’s soil, Mycelia are massive fungal networks that are now recognized by leading microbiologists as “the Earth’s natural internet, a consciousness with which we might be able to communicate.”1 Indeed, these complex, highly responsive, underground networks share an intimate relationship with the roots of thousands of trees, communicating extensively by sending and receiving messages throughout and across the network every day. Regarded as a “collective fungal consciousness,”1 the Mycelia continue to stun and surprise researchers every day. Their ever-deepening dance is one of intricate intelligence; their song is one of mysterious, more-than-human sentience. For how can we know what it is to dance as a collective fungal body, at home in the bowels of the Earth, migrating thousands of miles through soil and stone, speaking in subterranean songs and breathing together in conscious harmony? Perhaps the answer to this wondrous question is closer than we realize, at home deep within our sensorium.
In Keywords in Sound, Deborah Kapchan writes that “the body wakes to the sounds of the body. Blood and heart rhythms in an ocean of amniotic fluid. It is another’s body — the body of the mother — but it is the same body… The body begins with sound, in sound.”2 Indeed, sound is fundamental to the body and intrinsic to who we are as somatic beings. Like all Earthly bodies — animal, plant, and fungal — we have a fleshy sensorium that moves, feels, and sounds. Therefore, as a choreographer of stage performance as well as installation art, I’m curious about how soundscapes in live performance can engage, both socially and somatically, with the bodies of “more-than-human” beings.
One approach is to attach contact microphones to actual mushrooms. These miniature microphones, called piezoelectric sensors, are able to sense audio vibrations through contact with the flesh and skin of the mushrooms. Earlier this year, I choreographed a gallery performance at the Seattle International Butoh Festival in which we took these textures and looped them into a continuous tapestry of sonic transmission. What you hear are the actual sounds of mushroom caps, stems, gills, and pores. And what makes these somatic soundscapes possible is what philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy calls “the contact, the encounter, the porosity, the osmosis, the rubbing, the attraction and the repulsion.”3
Another way we attempt to connect the music in my performances to mycelium and mushroom bodies is by utilizing devices that act as sonic interfaces between the Earth and the human body. These bio-sonification devices utilize an electrical connector (electrode) and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) system to perceive the electromagnetic variations from the surface of the mushroom’s skin to the mycelium roots. By hooking up the electrodes — which act as a conductor through which electricity enters or leaves a substance — to the surfaces of the living mushrooms on stage, my collaborators and I are able to take the bioelectricity generated within the fungal organism and translate that data into simple sounds. During my performance at the 2018 Seattle Butoh Festival, audiences experienced a live musical tapestry of bioelectric signals produced by the mycelium — a soundtrack made possible by the electrical phenomena produced by living, breathing organisms from the soil of the Earth! In this way, one could say that the mycelium sang through the pores of their fruiting, mushroom skin!
For sound artist Gregory Whitehead, the ear is the bridge between the ethereal and the bodily. The ear, he says, “opens a path for acoustic vibrations to travel through the spine and skeleton. Sound, then, is actually a material for the whole body conducted through nerves and bones by way of a hole in the head.”4 Therefore, as nondiscursive forms of affective transmission, the somatic songs of the Mycelia call for us to access and employ corporeal modes of auditory perception, a way of listening to the world that produces a different way of being in the world. One conceptualization of a corporeal listening practice can be found in what sound studies scholar Christof Migone denominates the “performance of porosity” as echoed by philosopher Edouard Glissant: “Tune your voice to a world time. Exit from the skin of your scream. Enter the world’s skin through your pores.”3 According to Migone, “the performance of porosity activates a zone of transition, a permeable zone impeding successful implementation of a hermetic seal. Leakage, of any magnitude, from the insidious drip to the gushing torrent, undermines any xenophobic impulse.”3 Furthermore, “if one conceives the body as porous, it becomes impossible to think of an individual without a collective, impossible to keep your distance, impossible to delimit the outside from the inside.”3
This ontology of sound reminds me of the corporeal practices of beholding and moving through the world practiced in Butoh dance. Butoh, which incorporates elements of French Existentialism, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Japanese theater and Eastern spiritual thought, is an avant-garde, iconoclastic form of dance that was developed in the late 1950’s after World War II through experimental collaborations between its founders Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Butoh dance is often recognized and characterized by its gradual, drawn-out unveiling of surreal, dream-like imagery and its extreme slow motion. My formative Butoh teachers talked often about the importance of becoming a “sponge body” in our workshops. They explained how, in Butoh, the body does not exist as mass that moves in the already existing space. Rather, the space is defined as my body + the environment, where the self is a kind of transient membrane, and the space is perceived by passing through the human body. The “body itself” becomes more-than and other-than “itself” with infinite potential for all kinds of transformations, recompositions and reconfigurations. This ontology of space and of the body seems closely aligned to the Mycelia: an ontology of the body that is inherently connected to and entangled with all of the dynamic ecosystems that we move and walk through, from the tiniest mushroom to the tallest tree. Thus, as we begin to challenge our Western understandings of delineated corporeality, our perceptions of time and space are likely to be distorted as well. In my most recent project, Messenger’s Divinos: a meditation on space, time and impermanence, Butoh dancers performed continuously for over four hours, listening closely to the Mycelium soundscapes, and dancing slowly with their most subtle pulsations. Their durational performance become more than just an aesthetic display of virtuosity. The dance became a somatic, sonic exchange — opening up a space for communion between human bodies and other intelligent, sensuous, earthy bodies.
But, somatic communion with the more-than-human world is not a new or unprecedented idea, nor is it unique to Butoh dance. Cultural ecologist David Abram writes that: “For the largest part of our species’ existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings… All could speak, articulating in gesture and whistle and sigh a shifting web of meanings that we felt on our skin or inhaled through our nostrils or focused with our listening ears, and to which we replied to with sounds or through physical movements…every aspect of the earthly sensuous could draw us into a relationship fed with curiosity and filled with awe.”5
Curiosity, fascination, awe — these words come alive the most when I think back to my childhood experiences exploring the “earthly sensuous.” Images of raking leaves during Autumn, right around Día de Los Muertos and Halloween, and neighborhood streets lined up with stuffed trash bags come to mind. My father and I used to rake leaves together when I was a little boy. Those black bags, stuffed with the orange and yellow lumps of leafy matter were my primordial connection to the corporal choirs of the Earth. As we raked, the piles of leaves became taller and taller. The massive black bags, stuffed to the brim with giant heaps of leaves, would soon become portals into another world. Out of nowhere a pair of long, robust arms would sweep in faster than the wind, lift me off the ground and plunge my entire body into the leafy pile. Being submerged in those piles of leaves was like being submerged in the ocean water depths, so far below that you can touch and feel hidden universes that, up above, are only caressed by the imagination.
Immersed in that quieter world of crackling leaves, tucked away where I could hear the textures of twigs tumbling with sticks and stems, my senses were captivated. Close to the ground, my little hands and feet planted atop the dirt and sod, I smelled the soil. I massaged the mud. I traced the lines and contours of oak leaves like the wrinkles and veins of my father’s hard-worked hands. Knowing the fractal geometry of an individual leaf made the outdoor world—the place where forest creatures dance and mushroom choirs sing—even more of a marvel.
“But we do not live in that world,” writes Paul Kingsnorth, “Or rather: we do not think we do. We—the modern peoples of the post-Enlightenment, post-Reformation, post-industrial world—have invented a new and singular vision of time, and of life. We have broken the circle and made ourselves a new image to live by… Units of production, units of consumption, units of progress, which always involves more work, more speed, more measurement, more control.”6 But the Mycelia and the trees, move at different speeds, and in different ways, depending on our quality of seeing. What will it take for us to remember that there are thousands of intelligent beings beneath and above the pavement, communities of consciousness beyond our own, implicated with us in this Earthly existence?
Kingsnorth and other poets tell us that “because we have cut ourselves off from everything else that lives, and because we don’t believe that it does live, we have ended up talking only to ourselves. We have ended what Thomas Berry called ‘the great conversation’ between humans and other forms of life. We are becoming human narcissists, entombed in our cities, staring into our screens, seeing our faces and our minds reflected back and believing this is all there is. And outside the forests fall, the ice melts, the corals die back and the extinctions roll on; but we keep writing our love letters to ourselves, oblivious. What might the alternative look like?”6
The alternative to estrangement with the Earth is intimacy with the Earth. We must implicate our body and our sensorium in our study, necessitating felt, somatic exchange as the mode of experiencing and making sense of a landscape — and soundscape. In his book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, sound studies scholar R. Murray Schafer outlines a series of listening practices that can facilitate deep presence and somatic awareness, different ways of relating to sonic spaces. He writes that “sometimes it is useful to document only single sounds in the soundscape in order to get a better impression of their frequency or patterns of occurrence… [while] Sometimes it is useful to seek out one sound with particular characteristics. For instance, try to find a sound with a rising starting pitch, or one that consists of a series of short non-periodic bursts; try to find one that makes a dull thud followed by a high twitter; or one that combines a buzz and a squeak.”7 Murray goes on to point out that, since such sounds will not be found in every environment, the listener must travel to different places. He recommends placing our bodies in new spaces, physically immersing ourselves in foreign soundscapes: “The ear is always much more alert while traveling in unfamiliar environments, [for] when one travels, new sounds snap at the consciousness and are thereby lifted to realms of figures.”7
In Butoh, we practice traveling and slow walking though abstract space-time. The “Ash Walk,” the “Seaweed Walk,” the “Silk Limbs Walk,” the “Pelvis of Sand Walk” are just some of numerous approaches to the “slow walk,” a simple everyday movement that has become a classic trope in Butoh dance, in which the performer can take up to an hour to walk across the room such that at any given moment they seem not to move at all, except when measured over a longer duration. According to Professor Sondra Fraleigh, movement scores such as these find a broader influence in Zen meditation and philosophy, where the constraints upon form and expression aim to generate an interrogation of intentional agency for the self.8 Principles of communion, equanimity, and reciprocity are not just theological or transcendental ideals, but an existential pragmatics. With every breath and with every step, the Butoh body attempts to occupy a kind of absolute duration, where “outside” the self lies a realm of endless sonic and somatic continuance that is already inherently co-extensive with everything. When we dance Butoh, my teacher Sheri Lynn Brown tells me that “the edges of your skin become permeable,” and the self begins to stretch and expand wider and longer than ever before. “You can see 5000 miles in front of you, 5000 miles behind you, beneath you, inside you — you are seen from a million angles even as you are seeing.” These practices of experiencing and being can remind us that we are not outside listeners of the soundscape, nor is our body simply located at particular places in the soundscape. Butoh reminds us that we, like the Mycelia, are part of the soundscape in its ongoing, corporeal transformations.
These days, I try to re-attune my senses as much as possible by walking and dancing through forest trails near my home in Olympia, Washington. When I can’t get out of the city, I try opening up and tuning in to the soundscapes at the downtown farmer’s market or at my favorite local park — wherever there are trees, flowers or mushrooms, wherever there is wind, water or sunshine. The words of my Butoh teacher Sheri suddenly come alive, reminding me to experience the body as landscape, and the landscape as body. She taught me that the body is our first ecosystem. It is the medium through which we know the earth. Like the rest of our sensuous animal and fungal brethren, like our towering tree sisters, the mycelia are also sentient presences co-habitating with us. They are messengers and emissaries of a wider tapestry of life. Their choir is corporeal, and they can help us commune with the Earth, if only we would listen. Breath to breath, pore-to-pore, skin to skin.
- Stamets, Paul. “6 ways mushrooms can save the world.” Lecture, TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, March 2008. www.ted.com/talks/paul_stamets_on_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world. Accessed September 22, 2017
- Kapchan, Deborah. “Body.” Keywords in Sound. Edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny, Duke University Press, 2015.
- Migone, Christof. Sonic Somatic. Errant Bodies Press, 2012.
- Milutis, Joe. “Radiophonic Ontologies and the Avantgarde.” Experimental Sound and Radio. Edited by Allen Weiss, The MIT Press, 2011.
- Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Pantheon, 2010.
- Kingsnorth, Paul. “Paul Kingsnorth: ‘We imagine how it feels to be a character, why can’t we imagine how the land feels?’” The Guardian, July 23, 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/23/paul-kingsnorth-imagine-how-land-feels. Accessed September 20, 2017
- Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Destiny Books, 1993.
- Fraleigh, Sondra. Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy. University of Illinois Press, 2010.
About the author…
Iván Espinosa is a Latino experimental dance artist based in the Pacific Northwest. As a choreographer of both stage performance and installation art, Iván’s work explores the human body’s connection to and entanglement with the Earth’s landscapes — and how the intelligence of plant and fungal bodies can be manifested in live performance. He has presented his artwork nationwide at venues such as La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Seattle International Butoh Festival, Houston Fringe Festival, and the historic Judson Memorial Church. Iván’s Deep Ecology-themed performances are highly influenced and inspired by his studies of Japanese Butoh. Iván has trained with a wide variety of Butoh master teachers including Hiroko Tamano, Eiko Otake, Joan Laage, and Diego Piñón. Iván first began his artistic research in Seattle with Butoh artist Sheri Brown, who continues to serve as his generous mentor and most inspiring collaborator to this day. Iván holds a Master of Arts degree in Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Learn more about Iván and his work at: www.IvanEspinosa.org