Jul/Aug 2012 Reviews & Interviews

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places
Bernie Krause.
Allen & Unwin. 2012. 277 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78125 000 6.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Did you know that the common South American Potoo sings the blues and a Musical Wren's voice sounds like pitched white noise, but both sing in the pentatonic scale which is common to traditional human music ("think of the opening bars of "Oh! Susanna" or "Amazing Grace")? So, too, do many of the birds of the world's forests.

Bernie Krause is an expert not just in bird song but in the capture and analysis of total soundscapes from many different environments. Each soundscape records the combination of animal "song," wind, water, rain and other weather conditions, all affected by the shape of the land, the season and the time of day. His archive of "nature orchestrations of unaltered habitats," soundscapes of remote tropical forests, glacial terrains and every other sort of habitat, is unrivalled.

Because of human activity, many of these "biophonies" (a word Krause created to describe the sound of living things) we are unlikely ever to hear again. Is this important? Yes, says Krause, "the combination of shrinking habitat and increasing human pandemonium has produced conditions under which the communication chances necessary for creature survival are being completely overloaded." And we, too, are creatures.

The Great Animal Orchestra is not a green polemic however, but an account of Krause's experiences collecting these soundscapes and his discoveries of patterns and meanings within them. Some of his experiences were elating, some terrifying. Few sound recordists have sat alone in the middle of the Amazon jungle, heard a cat's low growl, its breathing and its stomach rumbles through their headphones, and suddenly realized that a jaguar was no more than an arm's length from their microphones. Few will have crawled down into a glacial crevasse: "not a recommended activity." And few will have sat in a native dugout in Borneo so absorbed in their work that they only belatedly notice that they are surrounded by crocs. It is best, too, Krause tells us from experience, not to sit in the path of a pissed-off gorilla. Luckily for him, he was merely flung aside and landed face down on top of his recording equipment in a patch of stinging nettles.

Not all of this book is as dramatic as that. Bernie Krause is a musician with a wide background in classical, folk and jazz music. He started to learn the violin and composition before the age of five, graduated to guitar (in spite of the pursed lips of his parents and others) at the age of 18, and, with the advent of synthesizers and electronic music, began to experiment and innovate. He had already forged a successful music career when a commission from Warner Brothers to write a theme (together with Paul Beaver) for a series of albums concerned with ecology unexpectedly took him into the wild to record natural sound. It was a "happy accident" and a life-changing experience, which led to a lifelong passion and a new career recording the sounds of the natural world. His musical expertise is brought to bear analyzing his recordings and he writes knowledgeably about the musical components of his biophonies.

His work has prompted him to ask questions about the origin of human music; about the meanings and patterns which he has observed; about the changes humans make to their own environment and to that of other, once pristine, habitats; and about the ubiquity of 'noise' in our world. Amongst other things, he comments on the way 'noise' has been and is being used to change to shape our own lives: restaurant design which deliberately increases noise and causes stress levels which prompt a quick turnover of customers is just one example.

If you want to know how ants "sing" or how "murmurs from the wild" have shaped our own song, dance and other musical expression, Krause can tell you. And if, like me, you end up wanting to hear some of the things Krause describes, then take a look at the video clip, "Dr Krause Discovers a Singing Cottonwood Tree," and be amazed by the percussive rhythms that pervade the world of nature. Rhythms of which, without Krause's skills and curiosity, we would never have heard or known.


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