Phil England speaks to soundscape ecologist and author Bernie Krause about the relationship between humans and natural soundscapes at the opening of a new exhibition in Paris inspired by his work.
The title of the exhibition The Great Animal Orchestra comes from one of your books and also relates to your idea of biophony. How would you explain the concept of biophony?
Well firstly, the premise of my installation [which forms part of the exhibition] is a major shift from what has typically been done in museums, which are very graphically oriented and centred around what we see. I’ve been working in museums since 1973 and this is the first one where the graphic element supports the sound and not the other way around. This paradigm shift is truly significant because it finally recognises that a major component of the information conveyed by natural habitats comes through its voice.
The biophony idea comes from the definition of the soundscape. The soundscape is all of the sound that reaches our ears from whatever source. What Murray Schafer and his group from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver [ie The World Soundscape Project in the late 1960s] failed to do was to identify the basic sources of sound and name them. They identified them and grouped them but they didn’t actually name them. And one of the big problems of sound – unlike musical literature – in Western culture is that it doesn’t have enough words to describe it.
So I took the idea a bit further and came up with three different source terms. The first is geophony – the non-biological sounds that occur, wind in the trees, water in the streams. These were the first sounds on Earth but there needed to be something to hear them. So that gives us the biological component; the biophony. And biophony is the collective sound that is made by all the species in a given habitat. And the third is anthrophony or human generated sound which I divided into two subsets, the first being controlled sound like music, language or theatre, and the second is incoherent or chaotic sound which we typically refer to as noise. One of my colleagues has termed that technophony. I encourage people to come up with their own terms for all this stuff.
One of the key points I’m trying to demonstrate with the exhibit is the concept of structured natural sound. The acoustic niche hypothesis posits that all of the biophonies in a healthy habitat have evolved in ways that the channels of bandwith of transmission and reception are reserved for and occupied by individual species.
You can see that graphically displayed in your installation with the work of United Visual Artists. What do you think are the optimum conditions for listening to soundscapes – whether they’re recordings or whether you’re actually listening out in the field?
A place where there’s no human noise. A place that’s otherwise tranquil.
How does the presence of humans impact on sound environments that would usually be human free?
It depends on how respectful we are. If we are quiet and deferential it’s not going to be a problem. If we’re noisy and anthropocentric, always asserting our presence, it’s a real problem. And these days, the racket we generate tends to be a profound issue.
You’ve revisited a certain number of the soundscapes for the “Before And After” section of the installation. Did you know in advance that those changes were going to take place?
No. I discovered those quite by accident. It was never my intention to do a “before and after” assessment.
The problem is that it’s really expensive to get to some of these places and to return again unless you have institutional support, which I’ve never had. Before this, most institutions have never been that interested in the field. Now they’re getting interested but have no money for support, and even more important, very few untrammelled habitats are left and available to capture in an audio recording.
So having gone back to these places and not knowing what you were going to find, how did you feel about it?
Well at first I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. And when I began to realise the changes that had taken place, my first feeling was one of astonishment and anger, followed by depression, followed in turn by a tremendous sense of loss. I just try to ignore those feelings now because the damage is so profound. Yet, I’m hopeful, but not optimistic.
On a lighter note: animal sound signatures, are they about play or are they functional? Do scientists over-read function when they are listening to animal sounds?
Because we’re human we think we’re top of the heap. And we tend to design our studies and the ways we see the world other than us as being different. That’s bullshit. It couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re animals. One interviewer asked me if animals have feelings. I couldn’t fucking believe what she was saying. I said, ‘You’re an animal’, and she was kind of astonished by that!
These biophonies are a narrative of place. As such, they convey lots of different stories. Those stories inform a lot of different disciplines like medicine, religion, philosophy, literature, architecture, and it goes on and on, some twenty-odd different fields. And yet we never think about the value of those special narratives because we are visually led and focus on what we see. Because it is so ephemeral, we tend to think that soundscapes, in general, offer us no particular information. But they do. The geophonies and biophonies, in particular, are filled with rich information that we just need to know how to decipher – and that’s going to take some time. The problem is that there are only a few natural habitats left that haven’t been radically disturbed by humans and I hope we find ways to save them. Even as I say this, some places are coming back; like Chernobyl. If you’ve heard the recordings that Peter Cusack did in 2006, 20 years after [the nuclear disaster], the soundscape is gorgeous, it’s impressive. It’s like, ‘Wow, shit, how can that stuff come back? Humans can’t live there but these other organisms can?’
In your idea of biophony, different species have different niches within the soundscape, but humans don’t appear very good at finding their niche within the soundscape. Is that because they don’t listen?
They don’t listen. They don’t hear. I think there’s probably a cultural aspect to it. I’m beginning to guess that because these habitats are disappearing so fast that the pathology in our culture is increasing at about the same rate. If you don’t believe that take a look at the news. During Ronald Reagan’s political reign, he appointed James Watt to be his Secretary of the Interior. One of Watt’s first acts was to defund the Office of Noise Abatement, a department in the Environmental Protection Agency charged with lowering urban noise levels for health reasons. When asked why, he answered: ‘Noise is power. The noisier we are as a society, the more powerful we appear to be to others.’ Because the noise in our culture is anthropomorphic, mechanical and chaotic it doesn’t do much to help our sensibility about the world and the way we navigate in it.
For me natural soundscapes have had a therapeutic effect. I have a terrible case of ADHD and the only thing that’s ever helped is listening to natural sound. I suspect, from my experience, that it would have a similar effect on others, too.
On the flipside, a lot of people have tried to integrate natural sounds and field recordings into composed music and you’ve done that yourself going back to 1970’s In A Wild Sanctuary and then recently with your BBC commission, The Great Animal Orchestra Symphony. How has your approach to that artistic challenge changed over the intervening years?
Well, the technology’s changed. When I first began recording in 1968, heavy recorders with seven inch reels of tape were common. With that gear, I would have to change the tape every 22 minutes – the running length of tape at 15 inches per second (ips). So it kind of limited what we were able to do then. Oddly enough the field recording model – that of capturing whole habitats (rather than separating out individual species) – that I used in 1968, I’m still using today. The concept was to record whole soundscapes and use them as components of orchestration.
The problem in the 60s was that I didn’t know anything about soundscapes, it was the first time I’d ever been out in the field, I just stuck my mic out there and whatever the hell I got I used in the recording. I wasn’t very selective or deferential and I didn’t have much of a concept of what I was doing. But the idea was the same: I was using the whole field of sound rather than a single individual bird or mammal.
The Symphony we did with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was a commission I did with Richard Blackford from Balliol College at Oxford where he had been composer in residence. That piece fully incorporated large elements of soundscapes as a part of the texture of the orchestral score. So it was actually scored to the biophonies we selected together. The biophonies came first and the instrumentation supported instead of the more traditional compositional models that stressed the musical paradigms of the prevailing academy. What Blackford and I tried to accomplish was akin to what we used to do when we lived more closely connected to that natural world – using the biophonies as our actual main themes.
Most Western composers think of themselves as primary in the compositional scheme of things. This approach is reflected in the work that we have traditionally done. It is interesting to me that for those groups who live more closely linked to natural world experience, there’s no word for composer, musician or artist in most of those cultures. For instance Messiaen, mid-20th century composer, prided himself on his use of the sounds of nature for inspiration. As he walked through the French woods with his wife Yvonne, he noted only the birds whose melodies and songs happened to fit the French academy definition of music. And that’s what most composers do, they take signature critters like a wolf, a whale, a bird, and they decontextualise them just as we’ve done in bioacoustic and other science fields for the last 150 years. Paul Winter in Common Ground was interested in the wolves and did a lovely piece using the voice of the animal. It’s OK, but it’s not using natural sound, it’s using something which to the composer sounds musical.
I was very clear with Richard at the start of this project that if he was going to take the basic, fundamental sound of the natural world holistically and derive textures and structure from that alone then that would work for me.
So the piece opens with this minute-long sunrise biophony from Borneo with gibbons duetting in the background. He’s taken the spectrogram structure of the sound and he’s actually composed to the structure. So out of the gibbon sound comes this string line and it’s quite remarkable. Then he develops the orchestration in terms of rhythm, melody, timbre and structure, bring from the inspiration of the natural world, the whole expansive feeling to the orchestra. It sounds Western but it’s still derived from the biophony. It’s quite cool.
In your book you talk about “the art of actively listening with all one’s being”. What do you mean by that?
I just mean we have to shut out all the noise around us and listen in a discriminating way.
People aren’t used to doing that.
No they have all kinds of noise around them whether that’s visual or acoustic. They take smart phones with them into the field. They take all kinds of distraction because they’re timid and afraid of that which is unknown and out there. And it’s becoming more unknown with each passing day because all of our attention is put into the distractions of the virtual world which we never escape from. It is merely a way to control us through endless diversion.
In your installation, I noticed the ocean soundscape differed so much from the others that you had to overlay recordings to make it as rich. Is there any particular reason why the sea and land soundscapes differ so wildly?
It’s a different medium. Water covers 70 per cent of the planet so the species aren’t as highly concentrated, if you don’t count the phytoplankton and organisms that live in and about coral reefs. And, I’m guessing that there are probably a lot fewer of the major sound producing organisms. So they’re dispersed and the density isn’t as great as it is in certain places on land. So if I wanted to include a lot of different critters it required creating a collage. As a result we’re able to hear different whales from different parts of the world, fish from the Caribbean and the Ocean waves from Big Sur.