As the world continues to morph into a hollow and unappealing spectacle, the simple world of plants remains an appealing escape. This has been true for many generations, but with the advent of the Internet, the plant experience has moved into different creative realms. In particular, music has been a successful avenue for plant-themed works, and while it is by no means a new concept, plant music has surged in popularity in the past couple of years. In particular, a 1976 album by composer and Moog synthesizer enthusiast Mort Garson called Mother Earth’s Plantasia has been unearthed and reissued by Sacred Bones Records, achieving significant critical acclaim and over 3 million plays on Spotify.
However, the concept of plant music is not new, and it has its roots in many other genres that flourished in preceding decades. In reality, Mort Garson was a composer of surprising versatility, with successful works in the easy listening genre during his early days, before discovering the Moog and creating strange works with it. Plantasia, for all of its popularity nowadays, is but a mere footnote in the illustrious and far-reaching career of its creator, and of the entire history of mood music itself.
To tell the early history of Mort Garson is to tell the history of easy listening as a genre. Garson is neither the first nor last of the easy listening composers, but his success is as much of a story about the landscape of the music industry of his time as it is about him. Broad of a genre as it may be, easy listening is the original context of mood music, and is perhaps its ultimate apex. Garson, at least in his early career, embodied many of its facets.
Easy listening is, in its original form as “beautiful music”, the ultimate musical incarnation of American suburbia in the 1950s. “Beautiful music” took the big band sound that was popularized by Glenn Miller and others, and replaced many of its horns with a string section, while maintaining a similar song structure. This is best exemplified by composers like Percy Faith, who ended up turning this sound into hits like 1959’s “Theme From a Summer Place.” There’s a delicate balance between cinematic and mellow, creating a placid feeling with the listener. It is this sort of placid entrancement that helped the genre to blossom into a common radio format in the United States as the new decade approached.
This wasn’t just for consumer enjoyment, either; retail businesses found the music unobtrusive enough as to broadcast into their stores directly on a subscription basis. The infamous Muzak rose to prominence during this period, having switched from selling wired radio to providing background music that focused on increasing productivity in workers that were subjected to it. Easy listening turned into easy business for them and many other companies.
However, the main source of revenue still largely came from individual consumers, who bought records by the truckload. Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis were mellow crooner superstars, but even instrumental easy listening proved to be a cash cow for record companies. Comedian Jackie Gleason’s 1952 debut album, Music for Lovers Only, sold over 500,000 copies. (This is despite the fact that Gleason reportedly had little to do with the music itself, aside from plunking some melodies on a piano.) The decade also sees hits from bandleaders Hugo Winterhalter and Billy Vaughn, as well as the rise of the appropriative subgenre of exotica.
As the 1960s dawned, easy listening expanded into multiple subgenres, with varying degrees of innovation. Space age pop, for example, took hold of many as the space race reached a fever point, and experiments with synthesizers and theremins helped to achieve a “spacey” vibe. At the same time, lounge music had transformed earlier exotica tastes and added in Latin American rhythms and occasional jazz flourishes. Composers on either side of the Atlantic flocked to the genre as background music that was a bit more cutting-edge than its suburban predecessors. That said, there was still plenty of room for more conservative composers to reach the charts.
It is at this point where we reconnect with Mort Garson.
Garson had certainly been active in the easy listening genre during this time, albeit combining the genre with his penchant for making pop music. He began his composing career at Juillard and became a session musician after the end of his enlistment during World War II. As a songwriter, he wrote multiple hits for pop groups in the 1960s, including a number-one for Ruby and the Romantics, “Our Day Will Come”. He composed the string arrangement to the Glen Campbell classic “By the Time I Get to Phoenix '' and arranged albums for Doris Day, The Sandpipers and Brenda Lee, not to mention tons of easy listening records. In short, Garson had a significant industry career in the 1960s as an in-demand soft pop producer, much in the same vein as someone like Enoch Light. However, up until 1968, Garson had never put anything out under his own name. The previous year had seen the first two commercial albums that were composed, arranged, and conducted all by Garson himself. Those two albums, Sea Drift and The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds, were originally released under pseudonyms.
The first release under his actual name, then, would be Love Sounds: The Love Strings of Mort Garson. It’s telling that this album would be some of the least innovative music Garson would put out in his lifetime. This is “beautiful music” much in the same way that an old Jackie Gleason album would be, especially on songs where the strings take the forefront like on “Midnight Blue” or “Nocturne for Lonely Dreamers”. Even though Garson occasionally tips the scale slightly in a more European direction like with the harpsichord on “A Quiet Sunday”, this is an album that was meant to please grandparents everywhere at the time of its release, even with the relatively sultry cover.
But even with his first named release being so milquetoast, Garson would soon be making some eccentric strides toward the space age side of things. Because, in 1968, Garson would buy an instrument that would forever change his career trajectory: the Moog synthesizer.
When Bob Moog debuted his synthesizer in 1964, he became a revolutionary figure in the world of music. Where previous electronic instruments were often reserved for experimentation in expensive laboratories, the Moog was portable and affordable enough for popular musicians. It even featured a keyboard, a first for synthesizers of its time.
Though his claim that he was the first musician to own a Moog is dubious at best, Mort Garson was indeed one of the first to use it. In fact, the aforementioned 1967 album The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds is regarded as the first album to feature the modular synthesizer, though the programming is credited to composer Paul Beaver. Together with producer Alex Hassilev, Garson founded a production company, Patch Cord Productions, to create synthesized recordings. The company itself did not last too long, but it was the foundation of Garson’s music career moving forward.
Garson continued making releases with wacky concepts, often to commercial success. 1968 saw the release of the Wozard of Iz: An Electronic Odyssey album (perhaps known better nowadays for the sample used by the Avalanches). Most of it is spoken word that spoofs the Wizard of Oz, and as such, Garson released it under a pseudonym. However, 1969’s Electronic Hair Pieces is a much better example of Garson’s electronic work from this period. Consisting entirely of covers from the musical Hair, Garson is all alone on the boards this time around. While the compositions themselves aren’t particularly mind-blowing, the sounds that he creates with the Moog come across as being close to his contemporaries of the time, like Jean-Jacques Perrey or Gershon and Kingsley.
But the next decade had much stranger works in store for Garson, and interestingly enough, that music would end up being some of his most influential. That, of course, includes Plantasia, whose listeners often cite the album’s peaceful mood as being a major factor of enjoyment. This mainly comes from the combination of the vaguely classical compositions with the warm Moog sounds that Garson concocted.
However, just five years before Plantasia’s release, Garson would create an album with his Moog that was meant to evoke something much more sinister. The album was called Black Mass, and Garson used a pseudonym that was all too fitting: Lucifer.
The album’s cover and packaging tried hard to appeal to a Black Sabbath sort of crowd. Even the song titles aim for an occult appeal: “Witch Trial”, “Voices of the Dead”, “The Evil Eye”. It’s similar in theme to another synthesizer pioneer, Bruce Haack, with his album The Electric Lucifer. Haack even uses a Moog and features it prominently (though in combination with his homemade electronic instruments.)
But where Haack meshes together baroque pop vocals with his electronic experiments, Garson opts for a stripped-back affair featuring almost nothing but the Moog itself. This proves to be an interesting development because it provides the listener with the building blocks towards what would become Plantasia. One can easily connect the dots between the opening flourishes of “Incubus” with “Symphony for a Spider Plant”, or even “The Ride of Aida” with “Ode to an African Violet”.
However, much of Black Mass is more interested in making “scary” sound effects with the Moog than it is in actual melodic structure. For that, we can turn to another Garson release from 1971. It is by far the closest Garson album to Plantasia in terms of sound and composition. Well, at least Garson’s Moog backing is. The rest of the sounds on this record, I have to warn you, are not safe for work. Welcome to Garson’s porn album.
Released under yet another pseudonym, this time being the mysterious “Z”, Music for Sensuous Lovers is practically unlistenable with the woman added to it. Perhaps this could have turned someone on back then, but with today’s easy access to porn, it becomes grating to listen to over a forty-minute period. A few snippets of the album gives one a full picture, and anything more is unnecessary.
But the album itself isn’t what is important. What is actually important is the underlying soundtrack Garson uses to accompany the woman. It is nearly identical to the work found on Plantasia, only it is over two long tracks rather than more compact pieces. About five minutes into the first side, Garson drops the rhythm entirely and transitions into a soundscape that is almost certainly the foundation for Plantasia songs like “Rhapsody in Green” and “Music to Soothe the Savage Snake Plant.” Same instruments, same twinkly glissandos; without the porn, Plantasia and Music for Sensuous Lovers are cut from the exact same cloth.
It becomes clear when going through Garson’s discography is that nothing sonically changes, aside from switching between major and minor keys to evoke a specific mood. What actually changes is the concept and packaging of the record, which while it is possible that Garson has some influence over what the concept should be, is mainly up to the marketing teams at the labels that distribute the record labels. These aren’t no-name labels either; Black Mass was released by a subsidiary of media conglomerate MCA, and The Unexplained (another occult record, this time under the name of Ataraxia) was put out by RCA Victor. Perhaps the newfound success of Plantasia is because of something outside of its music.
Today, Plantasia enjoys a cult following. At the time of writing, the title track boasts over 3 million plays on Spotify, thanks in part to a Sacred Bones reissue across all major streaming and physical platforms. Its popularity has spawned copycats and Spotify playlists dedicated to the benefitting plant growth, a feature which Plantasia claimed to have. While the actual benefits towards plants are dubious at best, it is clear that these artists have a similar sound that usually contains nothing more than some layered, warm synthesizers.
There is even an instrument called PlantWave (formerly known as MIDI Sprout) that takes the “biofeedback” from plants and turns it into this aforementioned ambience. It claims to take the electrical conductivity produced by the plants and uses that data to create soothing music that uses clusters and tones already picked out by the instrument itself. It’s similar to when James Murphy remixed tennis data from the U.S. Open, but at least with that, one could make out that certain data was being matched with a certain note. PlantWave’s explanations on how it works from a technical standpoint are somewhat foggy.
To be clear, it is not fair to criticize an instrument one hasn’t tried out yet, and that $250 price tag is a formidable barrier. However, its successful Kickstarter and surprising amount of competition is certainly indicative of one thing: the co-opting of the plant aesthetic as a successful business venture. It’s not a new thing; Garson himself was supposedly inspired of the concept for Plantasia by a 1973 book called The Secret Life of Plants (a book that also famously inspired Stevie Wonder to make his own soundtrack to it.)
The history of plant music and its marketing prowess is well-documented, run through in articles like this one from NPR. But Garson occupies a particularly strange position in its landscape. Plantasia saw an extremely limited distribution, only being available at a store called Mother Earth in Los Angeles, or if someone purchased a Simmons mattress from a Sears outlet store. He never released another album afterwards, and there clearly is nothing from his career to indicate that he would go in this direction, aside from his penchant for relatively new-age topics like the zodiac and the occult.
Both NPR and Sacred Bones offer another explanation. Garson’s wife was an avid gardener. Plants adorned their family home, and while she did not have much interest in organized religion or the other wild topics that her husband covered with his records, she was known to give feedback when she heard a particularly interesting melody emanating from the Garson family home. For all of the lore that revolves around the new-age plant aesthetic that Plantasia is so in tune with, it is perhaps a better listen from the perspective of one person making a beautiful record, not out of fascination or ambition, but out of love for their partner and family. As Garson grows in popularity and more of his work is reissued, one can only hope that aspect reappears as much as possible.