Sound art and permaculture principles
The main questions in permaculture always deal with examining our larger environment in order to evaluate how to design self-maintaining and self-regulating systems for energy descent: a future in which local systems, by moving into widening zones of geographic and social compass, reach near or total self-sustainable energy efficiency by cleverly taking advantage of natural ecology. What sort of care for the earth and for people could be imparted by music and sound art, as part of such a societal process, is a question to which a permaculture perspective can bring much new stimulus. I hope I've fragmentarily demonstrated this to be the case in this article. Rather than pretend to already have any well-formulated answers, in what follows I would like to merely suggest some of the processes through which this potentially far-reaching interdisciplinary research of sound production with permaculture concepts could begin to unfold. I am still at the outset of collecting data from the results of my first artistic projects in this direction. I expect, just as in landscape gardening, that it will take at least several years before I have enough feedback from the slow processes of social growth and community networking to make more grounded statements concerning the contribution of music and sound art to sustainable systems and communities.
Holmgren states, "principles are brief statements or slogans which can be remembered as a checklist when considering the inevitably complex the stations of an artistic process, from inspiration, education, to publicity and reception etc. All elements in a system have "needs," "products" and "behaviors." As such it should partly only be a matter of logical deduction and partly a matter of creative synthesis to work out how Holmgren and Mollison's permaculture principals could function in the realm of sound art. At the same time, Holmgren himself says that the attempt to develop "more appropriate governance, economy and culture, including art and myth" with permaculture principles "may be too big a leap" but that "it is possible to at least use them for evaluating the diverse cultural phenomena we find ourselves in" (Holmgren 2002: 47). In the same spirit, I do not claim to wish to recreate sound art from the bottom up using these principles, but instead to think about it in various ways through the lens of permaculture as a prop for the imagination.
The first three principals of permaculture are very simple and provide a good basis for the ethics of any undertaking: care for the earth, care for people, and respecting the limits of nature on production and fair distribution (Mollison 1988: 2, Holmgren 2002: 1). These principals already raise important questions about producing sound art that has to do with the ecological sector. The financial and cultural sectors of influence of its artistic production are, by comparison, already well mapped. This ecological sector also includes food, the production of materials and many other facets of artistic work that in a traditional analysis are either entirely ignored or play merely a secondary or tertiary role. Also, in applying these three fundamental principals it already becomes clear that if people's ability to obtain energy through listening is the way through which sound art can care for the earth and its people, then the artistic value placed on particular disciplines is in urgent need of an upgrade: above all, music therapy and music education should be lent equal status with other forms of artistic output. That these fields are necessarily less artistic or less expert than "disinterested" artworks is a fallacy that stems from the (receding) dominance of the ideology of individualism, solitary genius and the market economy in the arts. Arguably, one could perceive a symptom of this receding influence in the surge of relational aesthetics over the last decade in the art world (although this trend is no panacea for the world's problems.) However obvious, it bears repeating: the more the public enjoys sound and music participation rather than consumption, the better it is for the natural ecology. But further, following primary permaculture ethics would mean that we should calibrate our artistic work less towards "productivity" (however that might be defined in terms of finances, science or social status) and more towards care; it would mean to transcend exerting "control" and focus more on facilitation, to be concerned not only with virtuosity, but virtuosic cooperation. As Uri Gordon writes of permaculture in the context of capitalism,
‘care for the land and the people’, transposed into broader cultural terms, would involve facilitating that self-development of the plant or the person, the garden or the community, each according to its own context—working with, rather than against, the organic momentum of the entity cared for. Whereas in monoculture (or industry, or existing social relations) what is sought after is the opposite—maximal control and harnessing of natural processes and labour power. (Gordon 2008: 137)
Holmgren's 2002 updated and elaborated principles of permaculture are:
Observe and interact
Catch and store energy
Obtain a yield
Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
Use and value renewable resources and services
Produce no waste
Design from patterns to details
Integrate, do not segregate
Use small and slow solutions
Use and value diversity
Use edges and value the marginal
Creatively use and respond to change
I used the principle "Observe and Interact" as the inspiration for a follow-up piece to Gongburgh, called Phonosynthesis, developed for a group show during the preview of the Berlin transmediale 2014 at the Errant Bodies project space.  By observing the sonic skills and habits of a group and how they are connected, it should be possibleto create possibilities for interaction, based on the observations, with music and sound. Local communities have detailed knowledge of history and geography, which are important to understand the ecology of how communities react to sound. Holmgren's call, as part of "observation and interaction," to "interact with care, creativity and efficiency" (Holmgren 2002: 14), are in harmony with my wishes to create participatory artwork that enhances difference by exploring modes of listening. During the piano lessons of five children (ages five, nine, eleven, and two who were eight years old), I played them a recorded soundscape of the site at the Botanische Garten in Dahlem. At this site the Technisches Universität project, "Permakultur & Terra Preta," has been granted a space to plant a permaculture garden. The children were then asked to improvise fitting music for the soundscape that they just heard, and their improvisations were recorded. In Phonosynthesis I encourage the gallery visitor to play transcriptions provided of the children's pieces on a toy piano for the five plants to "hear." These five herbal plants will be planted in the new permaculture garden, which is planned on the site where the original soundscape was recorded. Both the children's improvisations and the gallery visitor's interpretations of them will be mixed and arranged together with the recording of the original soundscape of the site in Dahlem that inspired this journey from garden, to child, to adult participant and back to garden again. This recording will be offered as a download on various websites in return for donations to the Permakultur & Terra Preta project.
Under the category of the "observe and interact" principle, Holmgren also introduces the idea of "top down thinking, bottom up action" which is essentially a restatement of "think globally, act locally" (although it also carries other connotations related to a pyramid of hierarchical political structures) (Holmgren 2002: 15). I consider the scale of the Phonosynthesis project, working with students at a local university, a music school and a project space in Berlin (Errant Bodies) to be a reflection of this principle, as all the groups mobilize together for the purpose of transforming an experience of the garden. In this way, word is spread about the project and about permaculture. Furthermore, as a main tenet of "interaction," Holmgren entreats gardeners to "make the smallest intervention necessary" (Holmgren 2002: 17). Holmgren refers here to Masanobu Fukuoka's lifelong agricultural accomplishments and writings, which were a major influence on the development of permaculture in the 1970s. Inspired by Fukuoka's advice, Phonosynthesis features a "do nothing" approach to music composition. Different from John Cage's non-intentionality, do nothing composition is inspired by "do nothing farming" (Masanobu 1978: 15); Phonosynthesis simply puts the musical impulses of different groups of people in contact with one another and lets each enhance the natural functioning of the other. A sounding and unsounding music is thereby supported in coming into existence all by itself. This "energy cycling" (capturing and recycling natural energy processes through the way one connects systems together) is another permaculture principle (Mollison and Slay 1991: 17-19), which I attempt to transpose into the realm of music's sociality. I hope that by considering plant life's ability to absorb vibrations of sound that are different from (and possibly beyond) the human parameters of hearing (something we could consider the "unsound" of plant-life audition), the experience of the garden will be enhanced for all involved as a result of this symbolic cycling of sound's energy. I borrowed the main idea for Phonosynthesis from one part of Holmgren's explication of "observation and interaction." There he pointedly states, "the landscape is the textbook" (Holmgren 2002: 16). I take this analogy of Holmgren's literally—instead of needing to play piano from the written page, as the conventions of conventional music education dictate, the children piano students are asked here to instead "play the soundscape."