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The calls of the wild

21 April 2012

11:00 AM

21 April 2012

11:00 AM

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

Profile, pp.288, 12.99

This is a weird and wonderful book. Bernie Krause, who started out as a popular musician and then in the mid-Sixties began to experiment with synthesisers and electronic mixing, has spent the past 40 years recording natural noises — individual species, but more importantly, perhaps, whole habitats and therefore the relationship of the different sounds within specific environments.

He has recorded over 15,000 different topographies, and is recognised as a global expert. However — and this is his point — at least half of these ‘soundscapes’ no longer exist; their ancient music has been corroded, thinned out or even silenced by human background din, as well as by the exploitation and destruction of so many of the habitats and species themselves. In this book, he sets out to show us what we are losing and why it matters.

He makes vivid and persuasive arguments against both our exclusively visual response to nature and our emphasis on individual species over relationships. As you read you can hardly fail to become aware, for instance, of how many natural history programmes go out of their way to eliminate background noise, so that we can more clearly hear the sounds of particular species, most often larger mammals. In evolutionary terms, of course, each species comes to make its own range of sounds in relation to what is going on around it, pitching its calls within vacant sound niches, so as to communicate most effectively.

The most helpful thing Krause does is to divide sounds into three categories: the ‘geophony’ (water, wind etc); the ‘biophony’ (animals and plants); and the ‘androphony’ (humans and their effects), though I suspect the latter two are more interrelated than he allows for. As his title suggests he believes that music emerged from the geophony and biophony (this, for example, explains why different societies have different musical scales), and would be much improved if it returned closer to its source. But can you separate music so tidily from the rest of the androphony, which is the inevitable villain of the trio?

There are problems here. Krause is making his recordings with highly sophisticated technology — I am not sure how it helps music or ecological consciousness to hymn the rich glories of sounds, like those made by underwater shrimps, which human ears can never have heard, while ignoring the androphony necessarily created by the production of the recording machinery and its transportation into the ‘wild’ to do its job.

It also feels slightly alarming to have the music and other sounds made by indigenous cultural groups seamlessly aligned to the biophony rather than the androphony: Krause can be mawkishly sentimental here.

Moreover, his prejudices occasionally show up as ignorance: his summary description of Christianity’s attitude to music is bizarre and in places simply wrong. And when a writer is wrong about something you know about, it does undermine your confidence when he tells you something you do not know about. Added to which, his writing style too often proves incapable of mirroring the extraordinary beauty of his content.

But in the final count none of this matters. This is an extraordinary and important book. I challenge anyone to read it and not hear for themselves sounds they have never heard — or rather never noticed — before. I walk out now onto a refreshed, renewed moor: I accept sadly that it does not have the depth and complexity that it had even half a century ago, but I can hear it better and walk more softly myself after reading The Great Animal Orchestra.

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