Friday, December 9, 2016

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

by Drew Martin
When I worked in a zoo in the north of the Czech Republic during a mid 1990s I was always impressed by the range of exotic sounds that reached out to me at the crack of dawn as I walked from the nearby trolley bus station to the entrance gate. Some noises were difficult to match to an animal, or even a species. The gibbons in the zoo, for example, had a high-pitched looping call that I first mistook for a tropical bird. 

Recently, I was perusing the arts section of my local library when a book on this subject caught my attention: The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places by Dr. Bernie Krause. The cover features a few different creatures: a long-legged bird, a monkey, and a couple dragonflies. There is also a bar of music. 

I expected this book to speak to my audio experiences from my zoo days through a journalist-style narrative of the animal kingdom. On this it delivers but it is so much more than what I had imagined. For one thing, unlike a lot of non-fiction books, this masterly written work follows a great arc of thought. When you read something by an author such as Malcolm Gladwell you basically get a thesis upfront followed by supportive case studies to prove the author’s point. It’s that or simply a collection of magazine-type articles. Krause, by contrast, develops an incredibly well-conceived 236-page history of sound on Earth. He outlines this through three general sound categories: Geophony, Biophony, and Anthrophony.

Geophony covers the sounds made by the Earth: wind blowing, water gurgling, ice cracking, storms thundering, volcanoes erupting, wildfires raging, and the ground rumbling. 
Krause takes the reader back millions of years when the only sounds you would have heard on the planet were that of the Geophony. Even more mind-boggling is the idea that these sounds influenced all the other sounds that came after them. He explains how a bird’s call is fine-tuned to the Geophony soundscape. For example, a bird that lives near a waterfall will have a call that can be heard over the constant rush of water. I could add that this seems in line with the loud call of seagulls who are typically communicating over the crash of waves. 

Most elegant is Krause’s description of waves around the world and how the cadence and strength differs greatly and is even affected by level of salinity, and the rake of the shoreline. He compares the drawn-out thunderous crashes of the surf at Big Sur to the delicate quick patter off the coast of Tanzania. 

One thing I question after reading this book is his inclusion of plant life in the Geophony. For example, he describes how the wind blowing over broken reeds is nature’s first Pan-flute, which presumably could have been an inspiration to music-making humans. In terms of evolution, plants and animals share a common primordial ancestor; the same spark of life. For this reason, there should probably be a Botaphony to speak entirely to plants including their slow growth sounds, and the array of animated noises they can make including that of falling trees and limbs, and the rubbing together of branches. In fact, the sound of wind and fire are often botanical. Think of the rustling of leaves and the crackling of burning wood. 

The Biophony, as described by Krause includes the noises made by creatures great and small. Whale calls can circle the Earth in open water. Shrimp snap their claws so loudly that they create a sonic bubble around them that stuns their prey.

Krause is a professional musician and sound technician but what is expressed most in this book is his skill of being a good listener. This translates to his talent as a writer and makes me realize that reading is simply a form of listening. The most notable takeaway from Krause is to appreciate the sounds of our world and to really understand the connections within the bandwidth of an environment. The most poignant example of this is the common notion that certain creatures vocalize simply for mating and territorial claim but this overlooks the most fascinating element of how they might harmonize and synchronize their calls, which still provides them with a medium for hooking up with mates and staking their turf, but is also a defense from their auditory predators who cannot pinpoint a single source when confronted with their surround-sound. That is, until this sound is disrupted by another noise, which might come from the Geophony, such as a storm; the Biophony, such as a howl or a growl; or more commonly, the Anthrophony, which is the noise we and our creations make. 

Krause breaks the Anthrophony down into Electromechanical noises from that range from pencil sharpeners to pile drivers, and Physiological noises from sneezing to shouting. He also explains Anthrophonic sounds as controlled and incidental.

Krause’s mission with this book seems two-fold. First, it is an educational read about understanding sounds and learning to listen. But it also has a sound-environment protection agenda. He writes about “bioacoustics information” versus “uncorrelated acoustic debris” or less politely, “acoustic garbage.” He explains how our brains labor to filter out harmful noises. Interestingly, while we might feel that we can adjust to invasive sounds, our bodies unconsciously continue to display the same nervous tension, fatigue, and irritation as they did when the noise was first introduced and perceived as stressful. He compares artificial white noise to fluorescent lighting. Not too long ago some employers introduced artificial white noise to their companies in hopes of focusing the attention of their staff. The results were counterproductive and could not compare to natural white noise such as waves and waterfalls, which have unique cadence patterns with subtle signatures that do indeed pacify humans. 

The most upsetting part of Krause’s exposé is the fact that fatal whale beachings, which are sometimes induced by the hemorrhaging of their inner ears, might be due to Navy sonar testing. Aside from the physical pain they experience, they become disoriented and go off course.  Krause’s environmentalism via the natural soundscape makes perfect sense: he illustrates the density of sound with graphs of his recordings that reflect the shocking but expected reduction of life through various activities such as logging. The removal of vegetation is devastating but Anthrophonic noise pollution alone is enough to disrupt a habitat as well. 

While Krause certainly struggles with the fact that our natural environment is rapidly diminishing, with technology fueling this decline, he does offer some hope that a new generation of smart-phone kids would use the recording technology in their hands to rediscover and appreciate natural soundscapes as he himself did on assignment decades ago.