A window into bioacoustician Bernie Krause’s Great Animal Orchestra

By in Exhibitions, Features





Voices From The Wild.

Bioacoustician, musician and field recording maestro Bernie Krause has been traversing the planet for over fifty years, collecting sounds from diverse locales both on land and sea.

Beginning his career as an engineer in a Los Angeles recording studio fuelled by a love of burgeoning technology and synthesizers, during the end of the 1960s, he became enamoured with documenting non-human origins of music. To date, he has amassed over 5,000 hours of recordings of natural habitats, including at least 15,000 terrestrial and marine species.

Seven soundscapes from his travels are presented in the Great Animal Orchestra – a collaborative installation with United Visual Artists, who have taken these recordings and transformed them into visual representations that sweep across three walls of a pitch-black room – now showing at 180 The Strand as part of UVA – Other Spaces, presented by The Store X The Vinyl Factory in collaboration with Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain.

Spanning from North America and Central Africa to Brazilian rainforests and the oceans, the soundscapes were selected both for their diversity, as well as their “biophonies” – a sort of sonic thumbprint with characteristics that are unique to each ecosystem.

In an excerpt from The Great Animal Orchestra: Voices From The Wild, he explains “the importance of the nexus between natural world soundscapes and the evolution of human culture, the science of habitat health, and our unique relationships to the natural world”:

“My particular field, soundscape ecology, embraces the study and interpretation of sound in landscapes and marine environments. Over the course of several decades, I identified the concept with the input of my colleague Stuart Gage, Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University that all acoustic signals emanate from three basic sources that form the core palette and the anatomy of soundscapes from which we draw both information and inspiration. The first of these is the geophony all of the nonbiological natural sounds that occur in the natural world, such as the sound of a storm, the effect of wind in the trees or grasses, rain, the sound of falling snow, water in a stream, waves crashing on the ocean shore, or even the movement of the earth.

Geophonies were the first sounds that the earth produced throughout the long arc of its formation. But, at the earliest stages of the earth’s development, there were no organisms to hear them. Those came later, some 550 million years ago, when the second of these sources, the biophony, evolved. Biophonies are the collective signatures created by all sound-generating organisms in a given habitat at a given moment. The third category is comprised of all the sounds we humans produce, an output I refer to as the anthropophony.

For purposes of simplicity, I have divided this component into two subclasses, distinguishing between those sounds that contain important information and those that we find irritating at some level or that contain nothing particularly germane to our well-being. Because the signals in this last subgroup tend to be disrupting and stressful coming mostly from electro-mechanical technologies that Professor Stuart Gage refers to as technophony they are categorised as noise. However, as both Raymond Murray Schafer and the late composer John Cage maintained, “To the extent that we come to understand all of these sonic origins intuitively, we can then ignore the sources to which the sounds are attached, and, finding ourselves swept away sensuously, the whole world then becomes … music.”

Personally, I have never embraced the idea that the entire world of sound is musical. However, coming from a classical and professional music background, where I studied violin, guitar and composition from my early years, I can understand why some composers choose noise as an inspiration; it is a fundamental acoustic signature in our culture. But I left incoherent sound, or noise, to those composers experimenting with musique concrète.

In my late twenties, my late music partner Paul Beaver, and I introduced the synthesizer to pop music and film genres on the West Coast and in the UK where, beginning in the mid-1960s, we enjoyed a very successful career for over a decade. It was not until Paul and I were commissioned to write and produce our first album for Warner Bros. that I was lured into the world of natural sound. Titled In a Wild Sanctuary, it was the first music album based on the theme of ecology, and also the first to include natural soundscapes as an integral component of the orchestration.

In order to realise that combination musically, we needed to venture outside of our protective studio realm into more natural habitats. Paul, who was not comfortable outside, left that task to me. I did not venture too far, only to a local park north of San Francisco and to nearby beaches. But the moment I switched on the recorder and heard the dramatic space expressed by the surrounding environment, the impact was persuasive enough to draw me into more remote and wild habitats for the remainder of my life. I discovered that the soundscapes that fired my imagination were those that feature a few selected biophonies, the ones that sounded to me as if they were organized expressions, not unlike some of the Occidental and Oriental musical forms with which I ultimately became so intimately familiar.

During the process of composing our third Warner Brothers album, there occurred an event that further influenced my choice to record in the wild. It also became one of my most important recording and music lessons. On a cold October morning, while working with the Nez Percé Native American group on their Idaho reservation, Angus Wilson, a tribal elder, took me to a sacred spot in northeastern Oregon. Once we arrived, I was encouraged to sit by the side of a stream and consider the ways in which music might have been revealed to his ancestors: for a long while I remained still and heard nothing. Then, as the late morning wind picked up and began to waft along the canyon floor, I heard what sounded like a giant pipe organ but had no idea what caused it. When Angus pointed out that certain reeds by the stream’s edge had been broken at different lengths by the force of the wind and were whistling at different pitches, I understood immediately how his ancestors were bound to create instruments like the reed flute and make music inspired by the breath of the forest.

By the late 1980s, I and a few other wildlife recordists were beginning to grasp the importance of the nexus between natural world soundscapes and the evolution of human culture, the science of habitat health, and our unique relationships to the natural world. Independently, but in parallel with one another, we turned our attention to capturing the world’s remaining biophonies in earnest. These field recordings, in turn, have become an elegant and relatively low impact means to becoming intimately familiar with the vast library of information produced through the voices of nonhuman organisms, and, in several instances, have transformed the ways in which we connect to the world around us.

Excerpt from Bernie Krause, The Great Animal Orchestra: Voices from the Wild, text published in the book Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, The Great Animal Orchestra (Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2019).

The Great Animal Orchestra is open now. Head here for more info.