Posted by: Dr. Breffni Lennon | December 1, 2013

Book review: The Great Animal Orchestra: finding the origins of music in the world’s wild places

The following book review of Bernie Krause’s recent publication features in this year’s Chimera: The UCC Geographical Journal. In short,a great read and highly recommended!

The Great Animal Orchestra: finding the origins of music in the world’s wild places, by Krause, B.
London: Profile Books, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-78125-000-6

Described by Norman Lebrecht as “David Attenborough without the pictures and accompanying orchestra” Bernie Krause, a musician and naturalist, has spent over forty years recording and archiving the sounds found in non-human environments, what he terms “wild soundscapes”. In his latest book, The Great Animal Orchestra: finding the origins of music in the world’s wild places, he provides the reader with descriptions of some of the planet’s more intriguing bioacoustic soundscapes and how they may have contributed to the origins and evolution of both music and human speech. Dividing sounds into three categories, 1.) biophany, those sounds made by animals and plants; 2.) geophany, natural sounds such as those made by wind and rain; and 3.) anthrophany, the human-induced noises that more often than not disrupts the ecosystems that experience them, Krause makes an important contribution to the growing body of work on work on auditory spaces, primarily discussed in the more experimental fields of acoustic ecology and sonic geography, with Boyd and Duffy (2012), and Gallagher and Prior (2013) being two recent contributors to those sub-disciplines.
Part autobiography, part travelogue, and part treatise on the rapidly dwindling acoustic tapestries of natural soundscapes found across the globe (as a consequence of ever greater encroachment by humans) the book is divided into nine chapters. Krause begins by describing how he, in some ways, drifted into natural sound recording having spent many years working in the film and music industries. After illustrating the science behind acoustics and the meaning of such terms as soundscape and niche hypothesis he begins the second chapter with an inspiring story of a trip he made to Lake Wallowa in Oregon in 1971, where a Nez Perce elder, Angus Wilson, gives him a revelatory early-morning lesson on the origins of music. Instructed to remain silent, he sits and waits by a stream near a reed bed before being pummelled by what he describes as an oscillation akin to being sonically blasted by a combination of church organ and pan flute. Wilson then demonstrates how the phenomenon occurred; the reed bed had gradually been weathered by the seasons, resulting in the varying heights and holes in the reed stems combining to produce the unique sound Krause and his mentor experience. The book is replete with stories of this kind and reads all the better for it. Later chapters discuss how he devised the terms biophany and geophany, again from his experiences on commission to record sounds from biomes around the world. Writing on how the largely “self-referential” western music tradition (one can think of Ferneyhough’s Carceri d’invenzione IIb or Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 here) solipsistically neglects the sources of its own inspiration, he suggests we continue to remain more obsessed with human responses to perceived natural sounds than the natural sounds themselves. Krause also shows how human noise drowns out (and ultimately destroys) pre-existing biophanies and geophanies across the world, in what he terms a “fog of noise”, in many ways echoing Chief Seattle’s 1854 speech No Quiet Place. Much of the book challenges what the author sees as a perceived human monopoly on musicianship, with numerous examples given of different animals vocalising across a wide range of sonic bandwidths in much the same way as differing musical instruments occupy a human orchestral arrangement.
One of the most striking suggestions he makes in the book is his claim that one can measure the general health of a habitat by the level of sound complexity present there, essentially diminishing biodiversity leads to diminishing complexity of a habitat’s acoustic signature. It is a strong argument and he backs it up with an example where he records an old-growth forest, before and after selective logging has taken place. While the forest appears relatively unchanged visually, the soundscape tells a very different story. The bio-acoustic signature was devastated once logging took place and the full extent of the damage brought on by this more “environmentally sensitive” form of logging could only be measured aurally, highlighted by the absence of most of the species of bird and insect that had been present prior to logging. While the author ends the book on an optimistic note, I’m not sure this reviewer shares his hopeful outlook, given the accelerated destruction brought on by continued human (over)development and our wilful deafness to the circadian rhythms of the dwindling biophanies and geophanies around us.

Boyd, C. and Duffy, M. (2012) Sonic Geographies of Shifting Bodies. Interference: A Journal of Audio Culture, 1 (2): 1-7 [Online].
Chief Seattle (1854/1993) No Quiet Place. Hastings: Pickpocket Books.
Corbin, A. (1998) Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth Century French Countryside. London: Columbia University Press.
Gallagher, M. and Prior, J. (2013) Sonic geographies: Exploring phonographic methods. Progress in Human Geography, Published online before print, April 29, 2013, DOI: 10.1177/0309132513481014.
Johansson, O. (ed.) (2009) Sound, Society and the Geography of Popular Music. Farnham: Ashgate.
LaBelle, B. (2010) Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Murray Schafer, R. (1977) The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Vancouver: Destiny Books.
Thompson, E. (2004) The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


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