The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places
by Bernie Krause
While a picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, a natural soundscape is worth a thousand pictures - so argues naturalist and recordist Bernie Krause.
Soundscape refers to the aural picture of a natural location, and Krause introduces the reader of this fascinating book to the fruits of several decades' worth of his research on natural sounds, conducted in various corners of the world.
To an experienced ear, every geographic location has a unique and characteristic soundscape, and this aural picture reveals much more information about the place's habitat than any visual details.
Krause discovers, for example, that the biodiversity of a forest site in the Sierra Nevada Mountains deteriorated dramatically after a 'selective logging' operation in the late 1980s, by comparing the spectrograms of the place's aural history before and after the logging was carried out. Unsurprisingly, the previous soundscape was more vibrant.
But the book goes much further than explaining how soundscapes can inform us about nature, although this topic alone makes for enjoyable reading. (Who would have known that one could reconstruct the vocalisation of duck-billed dinosaurs through soundscape research?)
The Great Animal Orchestra details Krause's evolution from a musician to a recorder of natural sounds, eventually launching his extensive research programme. It discusses the origins of music and traces its history, highlighting the social, communicative function of music. It outlines how humans have increasingly regarded natural sounds as primitive and uncivilised (the wailing of beavers who saw their dam destroyed is a particularly striking example; Krause says it is the saddest sound he has ever heard, much more so than human music).
Most importantly, The Great Animal Orchestra warns of the rapid disappearance of natural habitats around the world, brought about by human intervention.
The book covers fields as wide-ranging as music, evolutionary biology, ecology, and environmental science. However, while Krause's stories are a delight to anyone even faintly interested in natural science, it is his lament for the destruction of wild nature that makes the book so thought-provoking.
While few will deny that many ecosystems in the world have been irreversibly changed - if not irreparably damaged - in the past half century, human actions that change the natural environment are unavoidable because of our species' population growth.
Krause may not be happy with the way the noise of low-flying planes impacts an ecosystem, but it is the same kind of planes that have brought him around the world to conduct his eye-opening research. In the same vein, paper used to print this great book comes from trees fell.
Krause's plea to preserve existing soundscapes is admirable, but preservation is itself a philosophical contradiction: it is essentially another way of tinkering with nature. And, taken to an extreme, simply letting nature run its course can mean horrible repercussions, including uncontrolled population growth for animals and humans.
The balance between the natural and the artificial is thus delicate, one that all of us should ponder. Perhaps by following Krause's concluding suggestion: listen more to sounds in the wild, sounds we take for granted every day.