The Cactus Song

By Giunta, Violeta Nigro | ReVista (Cambridge), Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

The Cactus Song


Giunta, Violeta Nigro, ReVista (Cambridge)


CAN CACTUSES MAKE MUSIC? THE ANSWER IS definitely yes.

Argentine experimental composer Carmen Baliero took a look at cardones, a species of gigantic cactus (some are over 32 feet) that flourish in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, in Jujuy, Argentina. Seeing these amazing plants, Baliero imagined what they would sound like.

The three basic sounds that come from these cactuses, filled with water, are from plunking the thorns (which have different pitches depending on their sizes); from drawing a bow across these thorns; and from stroking the "body" of the plant with drumsticks. For these sounds to have a better projection, they have to be amplified with contact microphones (pickups or piezos) placed on the cactus. These microphones (as well as the eventual lighting and use of electricity in general) cause minimum disruption to both the cactus and the environment.

The cardones are silent and they live in a silent geography, a silent landscape. They grow on hillsides, emerging from biologic residues in the land. This means that under each cactus there is the residue of something that was once alive, bringing to mind the idea that the cactus will not only make sounds but also speak. Baliero voices the possibility of a "hidden discourse of the cardón."

When talking to people from Jujuy, I often heard them mention an unlikely historical anecdote: that during the Spanish conquest, people used to dress up the cactuses to swell the appearance of their ranks. Observes Baliero, "The cardones look like soldiers; they appear to be the guardians of history. They stand like sentinels everywhere, watching. Because if underneath lie biological residues, this means that you can have a Spaniard, a coplera [local popular song writer], a guaraní, a llama. Underneath, there is history, and that's where the cactus comes from. It is like a witness or buoy that indicates where there was life. I think that for any jujeño and especially any humahuaqueño, from the region of the Quebrada, a cardón is a part of your family. …

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