Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What We're Reading: New Science

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, by Bernie Krause

Bernie Krause has had a rather interesting career in audition, working in his early days as a studio musician and as a guitarist for the Weavers (he was Pete Seeger’s replacement), and later teaming up with Paul Beaver, a Los Angeles studio musician and concert pipe organist who had made a career out of creating weird sound effects for feature films. As a team they were instrumental in introducing the synthesizer to pop music and film, and were frequently hired to produce special acoustic soundtracks for feature films and documentaries. A crucial turning point in Krause’s career came in 1968 when he and Paul Beaver were commissioned by Warner Bros. to produce an album titled In a Wild Sanctuary, which became the earliest musical piece to use long segments of wild sound as components of orchestration. In working on the album Krause went with his recording equipment to the Muir Woods to collect natural sounds. The experience was a revelation to him, and the beginning of his lifelong interest in natural soundscapes. At 40 years old, he quit the music world and enrolled in a graduate studies program, earning a doctorate in creative arts with an internship in marine bioacoustics. Since that time, he has amassed an archive of natural soundscapes from environments around the world and developed some interesting and important theories concerning the value of studying a field which he has named “biophonics.”

This book is a miscellany of suggestions and provocative ideas about the role of natural sound in nature and in human evolution; it is not the presentation of a rigorous scientific case for locating the origins of music in the primeval natural soundscapes of the environment of early man. You will not be able to trace directly how we got from that soundscape to Mozart’s Symphony n. 42 in C Major or for that matter to Good Golly Miss Molly. Krause explores some anecdotal relationships between natural sound and music among Native American tribes and also cites anthropological work that has been done among tribes that represent more historically ancient peoples living in relatively unspoiled natural environments. In particular, and more extensively, he reviews the work of American ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno among the Ba’Aka of the Dzanga-Sangha rain forest in the western part of the Central African Republic. While the idea of humans developing music through imitating the natural sounds in their environment sounds like a plausible idea, it is inchoate as a scientific study. It seems that a compelling theory on the origins of music as we know it would have to explain the complex interrelationships of culture, human cognition patterns, and neurology.

Perhaps equally interesting, and more evidentiary, is the case Krause makes that the natural sounds of a particular biome are unique and that they are also ordered orchestrations of sound. Through his fieldwork in specific locations over time, Krause was able to determine that an individual biome had a unique signature of animal sounds that reflected both the density of a species in that biome as well as the diversity of species in the biome. He was able to visually represent this in the production of acoustic spectrograms taken from recordings produced at different times, showing how this acoustic marker could indicate the health or deterioration of a biome. But perhaps the most significant and suggestive idea to come from Krause’s fieldwork is what he has termed the “niche hypothesis,” an idea that was crystallized by the question of one of his colleagues, Ruth Happel, when they were on an “acoustic” expedition. She asked, “How do all of these animals hear each other if they’re all vocalizing at the same time?” Happel arrived at a hypothesis that posited that collective vocal behavior was possibly more germane to survival than were single voices. The idea was that nonhuman animal voices of a species must have evolved in conjunction with the voices of other species so that each can be heard unmasked and without interference. Krause supports that notion by looking at what seem to be the deep instinctive and genetically based vocalizations of certain species and also how they become vulnerable to predation when “noise” intrudes to disrupt the patterns and timing of their sounds. His discussion of what “noise” is, and how it affects humans is another very interesting discussion in this book, one richly suggestive of how unconscious we have become of our acoustic environment and how important a role it actually plays in our lives.

It is a large missed opportunity that this book is not accompanied by a CD that would reproduce some of the sounds and orchestrations that Krause discusses. In its place we are given spectrograms that are produced in small size and are virtually meaningless to those of us who do not know how to read them. The major achievement of The Great Animal Orchestra is to make us conscious once again, after the elapse of millennia and a great forgetting, of the importance of our acoustic environment in both human evolution and our everyday lives; and to suggest that understanding the use of sound in nature can tell us something vital about the nature of life on earth. The irony is that now, at the very time we have recognized the richness and potential of this line of inquiry, the vestiges of the primeval auditory world we wish to rediscover and understand are rapidly disappearing. We live with the real possibility of not coming to understand something important in our evolution and history before it is no longer around for us to understand. It is not only species that become extinct, but the particular world to which they adapted and in which they lived, the score they collectively wrote and sadly, the music of our own story.

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