The Great Animal Orchestra

A Book Review

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places
By Bernie Krause
2012
Little, Brown and Company

Bernie Krause is one of the preeminent recorders and collectors of natural sound and one of the pioneers of the field of soundscape ecology. His most recent book, The Great Animal Orchestra, is indispensable reading and listening for anyone interested in natural soundscapes and soundscape recording, but it is even more essential for everyone else, providing an engaging introduction to the vital role that sound plays in our lives and the lives of all animals, and the rapid deterioration of natural soundscapes around the world due to the impacts of resource extraction and ever-present human noise. We might think that the degradation of natural soundscapes is merely an aesthetic loss for those few humans who prefer quiet to noise, but Krause demonstrates very clearly that increasing noise is unravelling the fabric of natural communities. The creatures that live in those communities depend heavily on sound for communication, navigation, and locating sources of food. Understanding soundscapes is therefore essential for fully appreciating what is happening in natural communities, and recording natural soundscapes is a unique and powerful way of monitoring and assessing overall ecosystem health and integrity.

The Great Animal Orchestra was published in a somewhat confusing variety of formats, all with slightly different content. The hardcover print edition, for instance, does not come with a CD, nor are there any links to online sound files, but it does contain all of the sonograms, visual representations of audio recordings, which illustrate many of Krause’s points. It is a shame that the print edition does not include the sounds, because Krause has one of the largest and most diverse private collections of natural sound recordings in the world, and the book is, after all, about sound.

(Note: after writing this review I learned that the paperback print edition will be released March 12, 2013 and will include icons in the text that point to relevant online audio examples.)

According to Krause, the audio book edition includes the largest selection of audio recordings of any of the editions, but of course it lacks the sonograms. Read by the author, the audio book includes many recordings that illustrate the text, but most of these are played under the narration, which means one does not always hear the depth and detail of the recordings. On those few occasions when the recordings stand alone without narration, we get a glimpse into the richness of what Bernie Krause has collected over the past four and a half decades. The audio book would have been rather long if all the recordings had been separated from the narration, but I still would have preferred that.

The other two options are a standard eBook, which like the print version is text without any sound, and an Enhanced eBook which includes the natural sound recordings. Because I do not own a device that will play the Enhanced eBook, I do not know how the text and audio are integrated, nor how the Enhanced eBook audio compares to the audio book, but it appears that the Enhanced eBook is the only way to get both the audio and the sonograms in one format. The other alternative is to purchase both the print edition and the audio book. This was the route I took, and I am glad I did. I like having the print edition for reference, and I really appreciate hearing Bernie read his own words. His passion and his deep concern come through more forcefully in his voice than they can on the page.

Chapter One, Sound as My Mentor, is largely autobiographical, detailing how his career moved almost by accident from studio musician to nature sound recordist and soundscape ecologist. In this chapter Krause also introduces and explains some of the essential parameters of sound waves, such as amplitude and the often misunderstood decibel that measures it; frequency, wavelength and pitch; harmonics; and acoustic envelopes. Every chapter, including this one, is built upon Krause’s personal experiences recording in diverse environments around the world, and these experiences enliven even the most technical explanations of acoustic theory.

Chapter Two, Voices from the Land, opens with one of the most important stories in the book, the moment that Krause discovered viscerally the origins of human music in the voice of the Earth. He learned this through the guidance of a Nez Perce elder named Angus Wilson on the shores of Lake Wallowa in northeastern Oregon. He goes on in this chapter to describe this most fundamental aspect of natural sound: geophony, literally “speech of the Earth,” the sounds produced by wind, water, ice, ocean and land.

Chapter Three, The Organized Sound of Life Itself, moves from geophony to biophony, the sounds made by all living organisms from viruses to whales. This chapter introduces an important and intriguing concept: soundscape recording as a means of monitoring ecosystem health and integrity. Krause describes his experience performing before and after recordings in an area that was selectively logged at Lincoln Meadow, Yuba Pass, CA. Although visually similar before and after the logging operation, the soundscape recordings demonstrated a deep loss of species diversity and density. It looked much the same, but the animals were gone. There is a very important point here. We humans are visually oriented and sometimes quite oblivious to the soundscape. But most animals are deeply dependent on sound for their survival. In many situations, recording the soundscape is a better indicator of ecosystem health than taking pictures or other measures. Sound reveals so much that is hidden from the eye.

Chapter Three also introduces another fascinating and important concept, which is explored more fully in Chapter Four; Biophony, The Proto-Orchestra. This is Krause’s niche hypothesis. Briefly, the niche hypothesis states that in “in older, healthy habitats” animal vocalizations partition into separate frequency and/or temporal bands. Furthermore, in these healthy habitats, most acoustic niches tend to be filled, with few gaps. In disturbed habitats, those sounds are more likely to overlap in competing frequency or temporal space, and to show large gaps of unoccupied acoustic territory. In other words, in healthy, undisturbed habitats, the animals are not vocalizing over each, they are organized like an orchestra where “some sing low and some sing higher,” in order to leave a clear channel of communication for every organism. This is not just a fascinating concept, it ushers in an entirely new way (at least for us urbanized, industrialized humans) to listen to the natural world, not as separate organisms in sonic competition, but as a whole system, an orchestra, vocalizing in harmony. Listening to the whole, and recording the whole, yields insights into the functioning of ecosystems, and our own role in those systems, that simply do not occur when we are trying to listen to this or that organism in isolation from its context.

In recent years the highly controversial “Gaia Hypothesis” – the notion that the Earth functions like a single, self-regulating organism – has found some mainstream credibility as the more prosaic “earth systems science.” Krause’s niche hypothesis is also controversial, but he makes a strong case for it. It should not be hard to confirm, except that it is getting increasingly difficult to find undisturbed habitat. My own recordings made here in rural Vermont show this acoustic partitioning most clearly in my recordings of late summer insects. Until I looked at the sonograms and could see the distinct frequency bands for each different type of grasshopper or cricket, I never realized how much insect diversity we had living in our back yard.

Chapter Five, First Notes, moves from biophony to anthrophony. It describes how humans learned our music from the combination of geophony and biophony. Although we have strayed rather far from our origins, our music is not something that arrived fully formed in modern humans. We learned it from the Earth, and many of our fellow creatures are great musicians. This perhaps explains why music is so deeply moving for us. It speaks to our origins and our connection to the Earth like nothing else. In my experience, that is most clearly obvious from listening to humpback whales and gray seals and of course the songbirds. My own discovery of the deep similarity between human vocalization and bird song came thirty years ago when I wrote a college term paper comparing the development of speech in humans and the development of song in songbirds. The similarities were so striking that it changed how I viewed human origins and human exceptionalism. What once seemed a unique human achievement found its place in the larger symphony (literally “sounding or speaking together”) of life on Earth. That is Krause’s aim here, to point the way to the origins of human music in the geo-biophony. I would have loved more detail in this chapter. The range of melodic voices of the Earth goes well beyond what is described here, as do the musics of cultures that have not lost their connection to the land. Here we find a tantalizing glimpse that perhaps will lead us to explore further the fascinating world of animal vocalization and human music that is closely tied to the geo-biosphere.

Chapter Six, Different Croaks for Different Folks, explores the ways in which human music has become divorced from the larger matrix of natural sound that gave birth to it. Of most interest to me here is the portrayal of early Christian attitudes toward all things “natural.” Krause argues that “those who wished to live in harmony with the natural world were considered primitive, unenlightened, wicked, pagan, or all of the above… Different types of music were banned outright.” Those bans extended to indigenous people being “converted” by Christian missionaries. We almost lost many of the clearest examples of human music that is deeply embedded in the natural sonic world. And now we are losing the soundscapes.

Chapter Seven, The Fog of Noise, is about what you would expect: a detailed discussion of all the ways that humans create noise, which is sound without meaning. Chapter Eight, Noise and Biophony/ Oil and Water, extends that discussion into the many ways that human noise is diminishing and destroying natural soundscapes. Krause concludes this chapter by writing, “biophonies contain the acoustic compass we need to guide us along the route of an ever-challenged planet.” We drown out these sensitive biophonies every day with our airplanes, our internal combustion engines, and our ubiquitous presence in nearly every corner of the Earth. We do so to our own peril, and the even greater peril of the natural world we can now barely hear.

The final chapter, The Coda of Hope, is somewhat strangely named. There is hope, but it is muted at best. The hope springs from the fact that, with plenty of time, severely disturbed habitats can recover, if we leave them utterly alone. Human noise is destructive to the fabric of life in ways most of us have never imagined. The only good thing about noise pollution is that, in most cases, once it stops, there is no lingering effect, unlike, for instance, pumping carbon into the atmosphere or toxic substances into the ocean. In those cases, even if we stop today, the effects will linger for centuries at least. But as soon as we stop the noise, the damage can start to repair itself. Krause tells the story of how wildlife, and a vibrant soundscape, returned to the Chernobyl exclusion zone within three years of that catastrophic accident. The Earth can heal. It is amazingly resilient. But it needs a break from us in order to do its healing work. He concludes the book with these words:

“I am invariably asked what we can do to help preserve our remaining natural environments. It’s easy: leave them alone and stop the inveterate consumption of useless products that none of us need.”

“Inveterate” means “habit that is long established and unlikely to change.” Another word for that might be “addiction,” and nobody ever said that breaking an addiction is easy. It’s possible, it’s necessary, but it’s never easy.

This is a rich and intricate book. The themes, the sounds, the information and the personal reflections weave in and out of each other throughout, not unlike the natural symphony that is the book’s subject. There were many points where I felt that there were layers to the story I was comprehending only because I have been exploring these themes in my own life for more than thirty years. And there were layers I definitely missed on first reading, and more that I probably still missed on listening to the audio book. I shall return for more.

There is a kind of magic to listening in the natural world. There are feelings and sensations in that act that are impossible to describe. They reach back deep into our animal origins. They reach even deeper into the mystery of our conscious present as members of a living, singing planet. Past and present; human, animal and Earth weave a symphony that is the truth of our life together. Bernie Krause weaves his own symphony into that larger one and communicates much more than the words convey, at least to this reader/listener.

For me the coda of hope is that even as we drown out the Earth’s symphony with our own meaningless noise, and begin to unravel the integrity of the life system, we are, after all, voices in that same orchestra. The discord can’t go on forever. Somehow, somewhen, the natural harmony of the great animal orchestra will reassert itself, probably without us, but possibly with us, if, and only if, we take the time to listen.

A Listening Life

Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton are leaders in the fields of acoustic ecology and nature recording. They are two of the world’s great listeners. Bernie just released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra, which is a personal and scientific account of the field of acoustic ecology. Gordon was just interviewed by Krista Tippet on the NPR show, On Being. Gordon called this interview the largest amount of airtime ever devoted to the subject.

I really enjoyed this interview, both the broadcast version and the unedited one. I especially appreciate the way that Gordon talks about what it means to him to listen. Listening is one of the most essential, elemental things an animal does.  Gordon makes the point that throughout the history of life on Earth, seeing is optional, but listening is essential. No animal has ever developed “earlids.” Our ears never sleep. But we humans have found other ways to stop listening, perhaps for the first time in evolutionary history. We have become preoccupied with our own thoughts – our internal virtual reality, or if we listen at all, we very selectively attend only to that one element in the total sound field that we think is important to us, and we filter out everything else. And in our modern world with its ubiquitous screens, we overwhelm the auditory channel with visual stimulation.

For Gordon, to listen means to let go of the filtered, focused, selective attention we are taught and return to a more elemental, more natural, open awareness of the whole tapestry of the acoustic world. Bernie Krause describes this in his book as well. Open awareness — deep listening — changes us.

These two nature recordists are articulating what I have found in what I call the contemplative life, which basically means a life of listening. And this is what draws me to nature sound recording. It’s not mainly about capturing and preserving sounds, although obviously that is part of it. It is really about learning to listen more fully. There is a magic in open awareness that both Bernie and Gordon describe, and so does Roger Payne in his book Among Whales as he relates how it feels to hear a whale singing beneath his sailboat: there is a subtle but utterly reorienting shift of perspective, in which one experiences the integrity of a place, and one’s irreducible participation within that place. One experiences oneself as inextricably part of the larger whole. One finds oneself, locates oneself as Here and Now and This. And it is absolutely astonishing to discover how much of our self-identity has been founded on not-Here, not-Now, anything but this!

I am not certain why this shift occurs, but it might be in part because the inner voice, the commentator in our heads that plays such an outsized role in maintaining our sense of being a separate self, is unable to operate at the same time that we are listening fully. It’s possible to be engaged in a visual activity while the commentator is yammering away, but it is not possible to listen. So when we are listening carefully to the natural world, the sense of being a separate self is necessarily diminished, while the presence of the living world is accentuated.

When I am listening and recording in the Bay of Fundy, I feel as if I am listening not so much to the particular sounds as to the space itself, and to something even deeper than the space, the presence of the whole Bay and the mysterious stillness in which the Bay itself is enfolded. The Bay is well suited to this kind of listening because it is so huge, and actively in motion, and yet it can be as still as a pond. Every little sound is absorbed into this vast stillness and you can hear and feel that presence that is the whole Bay. Especially in the middle of the night when there are no lights and all you can do is hear the presence of the Bay. This is what nature recording is about for me. Listening. Being present and being in the presence of a particular place, and by extension being in the presence of the whole Earth, the whole universe. It is only in those times of deep listening that I know who I really am.

When we do begin to listen unfiltered (or as near to it as we can consciously get), one of the things we inevitably discover is that we humans are generating an awful lot of noise, primarily from the internal combustion engine and the jet engine. Noise has a specific definition in acoustics: random acoustic fluctuations that contain no meaningful information. The bugaboo of nature recording is electronic noise, the hiss created by microphones and amplifiers. The signal is the acoustic wave that contains information. The bird song. The cricket song. The whole soundscape tapestry. The idea is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Increase the signal, reduce the noise.

But the real bugaboo in recording and listening is engine noise. It is noise, because it conveys no information. A song, be it whale, bird, frog, cricket or human, conveys information. Here I am. This is who I am. Most animals who sing have signature songs, songs that identify them as individuals to others. Who knows what other information all these songs convey? Noise conveys no information, and when it becomes dominant it masks or obscures important information, and that is absolutely the situation we are in now. Human noise is obscuring our awareness of who we really are as members of a living planet.

Gordon Hempton has made this his primary cause with an organization called One Square Inch of Silence. He talks about silence as an endangered species. The encouraging fact is that, unlike global warming, unlike all the toxins we have dumped in the ocean, noise pollution is utterly and instantly reversible. Just shut off the engines, and there is the silence waiting. I suppose it is possible that there has been irreversible damage to some species and some places from excessive and prolonged noise, the ecosystem equivalent of loss of hearing, but still, there is something we can do, if only we were willing.

I remember what it was like after 9/11/2001 when air traffic was halted. As I mentioned previously, the right whales in the Bay of Fundy also enjoyed the quiet that was imposed by reductions in shipping traffic after 9/11. Their stress levels dropped when the shipping noise stopped. They could hear each other again without fighting to overcome the noise.

I wonder what it would be like if humanity declared a noise sabbath. One day a week. No air traffic. No internal combustion engines. Except those few absolutely essential to preservation of life. What would happen to our stress levels? What would we hear that we have not been hearing? Could we do it? Just one day a week? One day a month? No chain saws. No lawn mowers. No jet skis. No airplanes. No cars. No trucks. No trains. No ATVs. No snowmobiles. No weed wackers. No generators. Wow. What a day that would be! Many of us would hate it. The withdrawal might be painful for some. Cessation of so much noise also means cessation of most of the activity to which we are accustomed. We might have to experience ourselves as we are, without the cover of noise and frantic activity. That can be painful at first.

But we might find that we love it. That this silence, this deep listening, is what we have been looking for for a long, long time. We might come to wonder how we ever lived without it. We might come to realize that silence is essential to survival.