Listening for the origins of music in nature

08/16/2012

Recording late one night deep in the Amazon jungle, my colleague Ruth Happel and I were alone in the forest several kilometers from camp with no light apart from the beams of our flashlights. Hoping to record the night ambience at several locations, we walked the trail quite aware of the tapestry of sounds around us. Along the way, we also picked up the unmistakable marking scent of a nearby jaguar. We never saw or heard the animal, but we knew it was close, perhaps even just a few feet away; it was frequently scent-marking as it followed us.

The musky feline odor was a constant presence. Our senses were heightened, but neither of us was afraid or perceived any immediate danger. Sitting quietly about fifty meters apart, we recorded the acoustic texture of the nighttime rain forest—the delicate admixture of raindrops on leaves, and insects, birds, frogs, and mammals performing their unified chorus as they have each day and night since the beginning.

Thus begins soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra, an examination of the origins of music in the natural world. It provides a fascinating look into how we hear, what sound is made of, and how the sounds of the natural world have underpinned everything from spirituality to architecture.

“It’s really a book about how animals have taught us to dance and sing,” Mr. Krause told the Light.

This Saturday, August 18, Mr. Krause will speak as part of the Geography of Hope literary conference in Point Reyes Station, organized by Point Reyes Books. Founded by the late author Philip Fradkin and bookstore owner Steve Costa, the conference explores how authors, environmentalists, farmers and artists perceive the relationship between people and their landscapes.

In addition to discussing his book, Mr. Krause will share some of his favorite natural soundscape recordings and show a Powerpoint presentation about the great thrumming orchestra of nature that is slowly, decade by decade, being silenced.

Of his many recordings, soundscapes taken from Alaska and near the Arctic Circle are among his favorites. However, most of those natural northern symphonies have been depleted through biodiversity loss brought on by global warming.

“Fully 50 percent of all the recordings in my archive are from habitats that have either fallen completely silent, or have been radically altered,” Mr. Krause said by phone from his home in Glenn Ellen, California. “This is a result of global warming. So much has changed in just 40 years. It’s the most compelling example of the changes and shifts that have occurred as a result of human interaction. That’s why this archive is so valuable, because it documents the changes that have occurred in just four decades.”

A musician who replaced Pete Seeger as the lead guitarist for the Weavers in 1963, Mr. Krause wrote in his book that he was drawn to natural sound through “a happy accident.” He was among the pioneers of electronic music, creating eerie scores for television shows like The Twilight Zone as well as for 135 films, including War of the Worlds, Rosemary’s Baby and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Then, in 1968, Mr. Krause went to work on a Warner Brothers project called In a Wild Sanctuary, for which he was tasked to collect sounds from a natural environment.

He found himself recording in “resplendent Muir Woods” one fall day and felt his acoustic sensibilities transformed by the ambient space that enveloped him. “The summer fog was at long last gone, the shafts of dappled fall sunlight perforated the canopy of the old growth coastal redwoods,” he writes. “Except for a few small aircraft and an occasional distant automobile, the muted ambience heard through the woods—a constant reassuring whisper—came from a soft breeze in the upper reaches of the forest.”

Thus began his process of learning to listen earnestly and closely to the story the land and its inhabitants had to tell.

After working on the film Apocalypse Now, he decided to make a career change. He quit the music world and enrolled in a graduate studies program, earning a doctorate in creative arts and completing an internship in marine bioacoustics. He is now a bioacoustician, combining biological and acoustic studies.

The book offers a privileged look into Mr. Krause’s own revelations about sound, from how often sound and especially music is thought about in visual terms (“light,” “murky,” “dark”), to the vagaries of tone even within a single note. Mr. Krause writes confidently, in an evocative and poetic style, whether describing the spiritual solace to be found in the murmurings of a waterfall or the “diaphanous mix of whirr and shush” of birds in flight.

His book is also filled with unexpected facts, including that the loudest organism (“pound for pound”) is the inch-and-a-half long snapping shrimp. He discusses the origin of the word “soundscape,” a relatively recent addition to the English language that has been considered to be fairly political.

“Congress is terrified of that word and what it represents,” he said. “Republican congressmen Don Young and Richard Pombo actually wrote to the National Park Service Natural Soundscape program in the mid 2000s, challenging the word “soundscape” as too radical and asking that they just use “sound.” They’re scared because of what can be found and revealed by examining the aural ecosystem as a whole.”

Indeed, Mr. Krause notes how important the geophony (earth sounds) and biophony (animal sounds) are for species who must communicate to find food, avoid predators and attract a mate, each evolving their volume, pitch and even time of day so as to properly weave themselves into the surrounding sonic fabric. A bird has to sing differently in a lush rain forest, with lots of wet and reflective surfaces, than on a dry and open plain.

But some systems have been better able to adapt to the growing footprint of man than others. Mr. Krause has spent time recording the various wave and tidal sounds in Point Reyes National Seashore. But although he said that human expansion has impacted the diversity of soundscapes everywhere in the world, he noted that one should take care interpreting his findings.

“The essence and thrust of my work is to preserve wildness, as in the Jack Turner, Abstract Wild sense, not necessarily “wilderness,” he said. “There’s a big difference between the two, and they are often confused.”

Speaking to ongoing debates about wilderness and soundscape in Point Reyes, he said that harbor seals were highly unlikely to change their hauling patterns due to boat noise, as has been alleged by advocates for the conversion of Drake’s Estero into a wilderness area.

“That’s horse manure,” he said. “Harbor seals have pretty much habituated themselves to boat noise over a long period of time. There is almost no area where harbor seals and boat noise don’t coexist healthfully.”

In judging the health of soundscapes, he said, it is necessary to take actual recordings and to compare them over time.

“Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to commercial investments and outtake from a natural environment, you’ll find no greater advocate for getting rid of the commercial investments than me,” he said. “But if you’re going to make claims about something, it had better have some standing.”

Mostly, Mr. Krause advocates listening to the whole symphony, in which the “voices from the land” have had to establish their particular “bandwidth,” where the various clicks, breaths, hisses, roars, songs, or calls can stand out in relation to wind, water, earth movement and rain.

What can humans do to help keep the planetary concert in balance?

“There is one thing people can do,” he said. “They can shut the hell up.”

Bernie Krause will speak this Saturday, August 18, at Point Reyes Community Presbyterian Church. Tickets are $10 and are available through Point Reyes Books.