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Microbes play the music of fermentation on the fermentophone


Staff member
Dec 14, 2023
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Do you want to hear music played by microorganisms? I know I would. Artist Joshua Pablo Rosenstock invented the fermentophone, an instrument played by microbes, and is displaying it at the Harvard Museum of Natural History from February 5th through the 23rd as part of the exhibit Microbial Life: A Universe at the Edge of Sight.

Here’s my interview with Joshua about this fascinating work of art, the fermentophone. If you’d like to see the fermentophone in action, make sure to watch this YouTube video.

Tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.​

I’m Joshua Pablo Rosenstock, and I’m an artist, musician, foodie, and professor of interactive media at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

What is the fermentophone?​

It is an instrument that is played by the release of bubbles from live microbes (bacteria and yeast) fermenting foods and drinks. But it’s also this immersive food art installation, featuring about 50 different jars of fermented stuff mostly made by members of the community.

How did you come up with this idea and get interested in fermentation in the first place? And do you ferment at home at all?​

I got into fermentation like a lot of people—I went to a workshop with Sandor Katz, who is the godfather of the modern fermentation revival movement. That was probably close to 15 years ago. And I got really into fermentation and started making krauts, pickles, kimchis, bread, and different kinds of beverages.

As an artist, a lot of the projects I do are really slow. Sometimes they take me years to finish. So, for me, cooking and fermenting actually scratch a lot of the same creative edges. You get some nice materials and cool tools and techniques, and you go through this magical transformation into something that is hopefully delicious or sometimes challenging when you’re done. And you get to eat it at the end—unlike art—which is pretty cool.

So, I keep myself going on my really slow art projects by cooking and fermenting. And I was always—especially when I got into making some of the beverages and stuff— really fascinated by watching the bubbles that come out of the ferments. They have this hypnotic quality to them. And it’s amazing to see this intense energy that’s happening as things ferment. So, I started to think, is there a way that I could somehow incorporate this bubbling or rhythmic energy into some of my own creative work?

In general, my approach as an artist is to set up these open-ended systems and let something unfold in a way that is hopefully going to surprise me in some way. At a certain point, I had this “aha” moment where I realized that I could use fermentation to achieve a similar result. It took a long time to figure out how to actually do that. But after several rounds of experimentation, I ended up with the fermentophone.

What did you hope to accomplish with this project?​

It’s a couple of things. The biggest thing is getting people to pay attention to something that they probably don’t normally think about, even though it’s a part of our everyday existence. Help tune people to the invisible processes of microbes and that the food is living. And that microbes are in our bodies and may even control our thoughts and feelings in ways that we don’t totally understand. I mean, that blew my mind once I started learning about that.

The other part is sharing the love of fermentation and finding colorful and multisensory ways to express the sights, sounds, and smells with this project. Also, what it is like to make something unexpected and cool. It’s the sense of wonderment that it’s created that I really enjoy.

What different types of ferments are you using?​

This project is relatively simple. I’ve done a lot of experiments and narrowed it down. It’s two main families. There are lacto-ferments, different krauts, and pickly type things. And then there are a bunch of yeast-based beverages, including meads, ciders, beers, ginger beers, and fruity sodas. I’m still trying to figure out how to stick a microphone into sourdough bread. I haven’t quite figured that one out yet.

We’re fortunate to have a farm that sponsored the project and gave us a whole load of their “about to go bad” winter produce (Read more about others doing something similar in a previous post).

Microbes play the music of fermentation on the fermentophone | Joyful Microbe

Photo by Joshua Pablo Rosenstock

Do the different types of ferments make different sounding music?​

They do. I think of the system as a duet between me and the microbes. My contribution is to choose the tone, the specific instrument-type sounds, and the notes that get played. But the rhythm all comes directly from the bubbles that are coming out the airlock. So, I like to say the microbes are playing the rhythms.

There is a certain amount of variety. They all have this life cycle where things gradually build up and get intense for a while and then taper off. I add a few more ferments every couple of days to keep a few that are really active. The amount of sugar in the food really makes a big difference. We had a bunch of butternut squashes that were in the donation, and those have really been going crazy, super bubbly.

Do you have them all playing together at the same time? Or does each one have a different microphone?​

I’ve done a lot of different iterations of this. And what I found over time is that there’s a limit to how many you can listen to. And at a certain point, it becomes this mess of sounds, and you lose the effect. So, for this installation, even though we have about 50 jars, we’re only listening to 4 at a time. The classic 4-part band. And we rotate through which ones we’re listening to. About every day, I go into the museum, take a look and see who’s really bubbling and who’s really mellow, and shuffle things around to feature the ones that are the most active.

Is this an activity that people can participate in?​

In this version at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, people participated in workshops leading up to the event. And now it’s mostly a little more passive—people come and they listen and watch.

In other versions, there was more of a live fermentation lab where people came and made stuff right there and contributed to the installation. That didn’t make as much sense for the museum as they weren’t set up for the food prep.

What responses have you gotten from people either participating or coming to the exhibit?​

It’s been really positive, which is very gratifying. I’ve done many different art projects, and for whatever reason, this one is the most popular. It appeals to people on a lot of different levels. Some people want to talk about the kraut and beer and wine. Other people appreciate it on a sensory level—they love the colors and sounds. Other people want to talk about the music and technology and how it all works. Some people are really into the science, and they get a lot of ideas like, “what if you measure the pH or check the barometric pressure over time?” Other people enjoy the overall experience.

Have you had interesting experiences or unusual challenges while developing the idea or putting on the exhibit?​

The biggest challenge is a double-edged sword. One of the things I love about the project but also one of the most challenging is that it is alive. The microbes have their own thing going. As much as I’ve tried to plug them into my concept, they don’t really care at all about the fermentophone—they’re just doing their thing. And they don’t always perform on command. Sometimes they’re just sleepy, and there’s not a lot of bubbling happening. And that can be a little stressful for me because I feel pressure to have a show. So, the biggest challenge is dealing with this incredibly wild, uncontrollable factor. I try to embrace the uncertainty, but occasionally it can be challenging.

Microbes play the music of fermentation on the fermentophone | Joyful Microbe

Photo by Matt Burgos

Where are you heading next?​

I don’t have another show on my itinerary yet. We’ll see if maybe something will come up as a result of this.

But I’m doing a lot of work to develop the next version of the fermentophone project. Right now, the sounds are made by a synthesizer—they’re in the box of a computer. People can’t access where the sounds are coming from, which is mysterious. I think it would be interesting to make that part visible and accessible. So, I’m working on another version of the piece that involves the microbes actually playing a physical instrument. When a bubble comes out, a string will get plucked. Something like that.

Do you have anything else exciting coming up?​

I work with other live plants and organisms, and another project I’ve been working on involves growing mushrooms as part of an art installation, which I’m excited about. I’m still in the “is this possible?” stage of the research. But I’m hoping to do a sculpture with living mushrooms, sticking them in unexpected places, and trying to encourage them to grow or die.

Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you’d like to mention?​

Most of the jars are created by members of the community in these workshops. And I encourage people to think of each thing they create as a work of living food art, which is in itself a new concept to most people. They assemble them and are meticulous about how they put their things in the jar. At the end, I ask everybody to title their piece. Sometimes the titles are simple, but they can also be fanciful or funny or expressive. Everybody contributed something of themselves in giving it a name. Naming something takes it from the mundane to a work of art.

What are your favorite books about fermentation?​

This post contains affiliate links — see my disclosure policy.

The one that really got me into it was Sandor Katz’s first book Wild Fermentation. I’ve also been reading The Noma Guide to Fermentation recently, which is very scientific and has a lot of information I hadn’t encountered previously. What I love about Wild Fermentation is that Sandor Katz’s approach is very DIY and encouraging. He tells you that people do this all over the world, that there are a lot of different ways to do it, and that it’s relatively hard to screw up if you do these couple of basic things. It gave me the sense that this is something anybody could do. That approach was instrumental in helping me get started.

So, there you have it. The fermentophone. What a unique idea to get microbes to play music for us. Check out the display while Joshua is still at the Harvard Museum of Natural History as part of the exhibit Microbial Life: A Universe at the Edge of Sight, February 5-23.

Learn more about
fermented foods in my series on the Joyful Microbe blog.

The post Microbes play the music of fermentation on the fermentophone appeared first on Joyful Microbe.
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