Tag Archives: Bernie Krause

Seeking Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise.” Aldous Huxley included this statement in The Perennial Philosophy, a comparative study of world mysticisms, published in 1944. Huxley’s complaints centered on organized noise: “indiscriminate talk” and the radio, which he described as “nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes.” The “assault against silence” has continued unabated as the twentieth century has rolled into the twenty-first. The ubiquity of televisions, personal computers, and mobile phones has only exacerbated the problem. Such technologies present conscious and unconscious barriers to the spiritual ideal of inner calm and clear-minded contemplation.

Arguably more damaging than the intentional sound sources Huxley bemoaned are the byproduct noises of human activities. Especially intrusive are noises fitting naturalist Bernie Krause’s definition: “an acoustic event that clashes with expectation.” The tranquil lake is spoiled by buzzing jet skis and motorboats. The pristine forest is tarnished by chainsaws and overhead airplanes. According to composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” to describe the ever-present array of noises in our sonic environment, human beings make such noises, in part, to remind ourselves and others that we are not alone. The absence of overt human-generated sounds is for many a painful signal of solitude. Think of the person who keeps the radio or television on for companionship.

An extreme of this view equates excessive noise with human dominance and modern progress. According to Schafer, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior James G. Watt declared that the more noise Americans make, the more powerful the country will appear. This perception has deep roots: cannon blasts and booming fireworks have long been associated with muscular patriotism. Schafer even remarked to Krause that if the ear-pounding decibels of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels were muted, attendance at their air shows would drop by ninety percent.

Nothing could be further from the quietude desired by mystics, who not only strive to muzzle external sounds, but also to cultivate silence of mind. This is hardly the default mode of modernity. As Huxley put it: “Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire—we hold history’s record for them all.” Instead of seeking silence, most people seek its opposite.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Wild Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In his 1894 essay, “A Near View of the High Sierra,” naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir contrasts his experience of the natural world with that of his artist companions, who are transfixed by idyllic mountain scenery. The artists, adhering to the “picturesque” philosophy, seek out choice vistas resembling the composition and subject matter of works of art. Muir, on the other hand, sees the entirety of the natural world as inherently beautiful beyond his own preferences and associations. As he articulated later, “None of nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.” This view, which came to be called “positive aesthetics,” attempts a non-anthropocentric position, wherein conventionally put-upon creatures, like snakes and insects, ignored topographies, like wetlands and barren plains, and frowned-upon events, like floods and earthquakes, are also things of beauty.

Muir’s philosophy avoids the pitfalls of scenery-obsession, subjective judgment, and selective preservation. By virtue of their pristineness, wild habitats are fundamentally beautiful, whereas humanity’s imprint—in whatever form and in whatever environment—invariably decreases beauty.

The starkness of this position invites criticism. To declare that all of nature is beautiful seems as erroneous as saying that all art is beautiful, or that all living things, including the deformed or nonviable, are aesthetically pleasing. However, this implies a thesis of equal beauty, which Muir does not. As Allen Carlson points out, positive aesthetics “holds not that all natural things have equal aesthetic value, but only that all have only positive aesthetic value.”

Soundscape ecology encompasses aspects of the two aesthetic approaches outlined above: positive and picturesque. Concerned with the effects of the acoustic environment on the physical environment, soundscape ecologists are sensitive to the balance and interrelatedness of sound signatures in a given habitat. They offer auditory tools through which to assess the health of an environment, specifically as it relates to the presence or absence of human-made (anthropogenic) noise, which tends to disrupt natural soundscapes and, consequently, threaten biodiversity. Following Muir’s positive aesthetics, the intrusion of human noise (anthrophony) into a wild habitat—whether coherent, incoherent, ordered, or chaotic—is generally considered disruptive.

Soundscape ecologists often appeal to our attraction to the picturesque, or “music-esque.” Bernie Krause, a pioneer in the field, theorizes extensively on ways animal and environmental sounds shaped the development of music and language in humans. Krause’s friend and collaborator Ruth Happel waxes poetically: “[Natural soundscapes] helped shape music, and if we lose the sounds of the wild, then we will also lose an important inspiration and resource for the arts. When you hear a chimp drumming in the woods against a buttress, that is the origins of drums. When you hear the melody of a bird, that is the origin of our own melodies. If they are gone, our own music will wither.” In other words, preservation of what is acoustically valuable for humanity is reason enough to conserve the natural landscapes that support them.

This practical-sentimental approach bypasses complex philosophical discussions in environmental aesthetics. If nothing else, Muir, Krause, Happel, and others remind us that animals and landscapes conventionally seen or heard as beautiful cannot survive in a vacuum. The picturesque and music-esque require the totality of their supportive habitats, whether or not we find it all beautiful.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Anthrophony

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musician and naturalist Bernie Krause identifies two categories of organism-derived sounds: biophony, sounds created by non-human animals, and anthrophony, sounds produced by human beings. Some of these sounds are “musical” in the inclusive sense of displaying structured and intentional patterns that unfold over time. Precisely which sounds fit under this broad definition is debatable. However, on a basic level, we are intuitively attentive to musical sounds around us, both creaturely and human-made. What is perhaps less obvious—and more fundamental—is the extent to which our sense of music is physiologically derived.

This anthrogenic (human-born) appreciation centers on two essential musical elements: rhythm and melody. Both originate with inborn “instruments.” Heartbeats and breathing lay the foundations of rhythm. The voice sets the template for melody. As individuals mature and cultures progress, these internal mechanisms are translated into external instruments, which are themselves imitations and expansions of the organ-instruments within.

Rhythmic awareness begins in the womb. The underlying neural structures of hearing develop early in utero. By the end of the third trimester, a baby can distinguish a wide range of frequencies. This includes her own heart rate, which beats 120 to 160 times per minute, and her mother’s, which beats 60 to 80 times per minute. When the infant is born, the tempo of breathing is added to the mix. As the child develops, rhythmic exposure and experimentation are diversified: rocking, clapping, banging, shaking, walking, stomping, dancing. It is no coincidence that excited music is fast-paced, mimicking quick breaths and heartbeats, while relaxed music is slow-paced, mimicking calm breaths and heartbeats. Techno, dirges, marches, meditations, and all manner of musical styles play off these natural rhythms.

Similarly with melody. The mother’s voice, which also resonates in the womb, is our first introduction to melodic patterns. Newborns show a preference for music (organized sound) over noise (confused sound), and for vocal music over instruments. Mothers instinctively communicate through “motherese”—high-pitched, sliding, infant-directed intonations—which, through exaggeration, reinforces characteristics of the native language. The infant, in turn, babbles in language-patterned speech-song long before she can form words. These verbal and verbal-imitative vocables set the framework of melody, both sung and instrumental. In every culture, melody is deeply rooted in the phrasing, inflections, and articulations of the spoken vernacular.

We cannot escape the physiological/anthrogenic basis of music perception and production. Rhythmic and melodic sense are born with us. Our hearts, breath, and voice invariably inform which sounds—human and non-human—we hear as music, and which ones we do not.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Terrestrial Sounds

 Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

On September 5, 1977, NASA sent a probe to study the outer Solar System and continue on to interstellar space. Named Voyager 1, the sixteen hundred pound craft is now approximately twelve billion miles from Earth. An identical spacecraft, Voyager 2, was launched two weeks before its interstellar twin, but Voyager 1 moved faster and eventually passed it. Both probes carry a golden phonograph record containing sounds and images meant to convey the diversity of terrestrial life and human culture. The hope is that, should intelligent extraterrestrials find one of these infinitesimal records in infinite space, they would be able to decipher its contents.

The record includes 116 images and an array of earthly sounds: greetings in fifty-five languages, volcanoes, a chimpanzee, a heartbeat, a train, Morse code, a wild dog, a mother and child, rain, and much more. It also has ninety minutes of music, ranging from a Pygmy girl’s initiation song to Indonesian gamelan music to the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 to the “Sacrificial Dance” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The possibility of an extraterrestrial species obtaining, playing, and comprehending the Golden Record is minuscule. Not only is it a tiny object moving in the vastness of space, but the sounds it includes are utterly earthbound. In striving to portray sundry soundscapes, the record reveals a certain, if subtle, unity: every sound on this planet bears the imprint of this planet. Such earthliness would surely fall on deaf alien ears (if they even have an auditory mechanism). The sounds we make or perceive have an evolutionary history unique to our orb.

In the decades since the Voyager space pods were set in motion, much has come to light about the natural origins of music. Bernie Krause’s groundbreaking work on non-human “musical” proclivities suggests, among other things, the millennia-spanning influence of geophony (Earth sounds) and biophony (non-human animal sounds) on anthrophony (human sounds). Other theories of music’s origins point to environmental imprints in one way or another. A rough amalgamation of these nuanced hypotheses shows music as a combination of the imitation of nature and the exploration of human capacities.

Added to this is mounting evidence of the interconnectedness of Earth’s living creatures. As Neil Shubin explains in his popular book, Your Inner Fish, the close examination of fossils, embryos, genes, and anatomical structures indicates that all animals, prehistoric and modern, are variations of the same blueprint—hence the fish within us all. (Shubin remarked in a lecture that he could have just as easily called the book, Your Inner Fly.) What this means musically is that creaturely sounds of all sorts emanate from the same extended biological family, and are thus shaped by variations of the same constraints. The reason why researchers have been able to explore musical vocabularies of songbirds and bugs, and their probable influence on early humans, is because, despite surface dissimilarities, animals are people too (or, more accurately, humans are animals).

The extraterrestrial species that happens upon the Golden Record will almost certainly be nothing like us. Life on Earth shares an anatomical makeup that could have only developed here; other habitable planets would have other ingredients. This is a major criticism of popular depictions of aliens, which, aside from The Blob (1958) and a few others, invariably appear as insects, reptiles, humanoids, or a combination of the three. Genes on another planet would give rise to species beyond our Earth-born imaginations. And our sounds—musical, linguistic, animal, or otherwise—would be unlike anything they’ve ever heard.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Great Animal Orchestra (Book Review)

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, by Bernie Krause, New York: Back Bay Books, 2012. 277 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

When George Berkeley posed the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” he apparently assumed that humans are the only sentient beings capable of hearing. Given the perpetual popularity of this eighteenth-century hypothetical, many are still convinced that audible events can only be confirmed in human ears. This anthropocentric view is often coupled with an equally condescending assumption that acoustic behaviors of birds, fish, insects and non-human mammals have just two basic functions: mating and territory. Aside from being psychologically reassuring—providing much-desired, yet difficult-to-substantiate, solace that the gap between human beings and “mere” creatures is unbridgeably wide—these beliefs betray our musical ignorance. As naturalist and musician Bernie Krause warns us in his provocative book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, “When it comes to natural sounds, there are few rules” (p. 59).

For forty-plus years, Krause has traveled the world recording and analyzing wild soundscapes. His archive includes over 4,000 hours of sound from more than 15,000 species. Captured at undisturbed locations, these chronicles reveal an aural aspect of natural selection. Contrary to what the untrained listener might suspect, the vast array of biological sounds did not come about arbitrarily. Rather, Krause explains, “each resident species acquires its own preferred sonic bandwidth—to blend or contrast—much in the way that violins, woodwinds, trumpets, and percussion instruments stake out acoustic territory in an orchestral arrangement” (p. 97). Krause calls this the “niche hypothesis,” or a partitioning process in which voices of a biome form unique sonic signatures that serve as terrestrial voiceprints or sound-marks. The nuanced audibles of each species accomplish specific functions: mating, protecting territory, capturing food, group defense, social contact, emotional cues, play, etc. From Krause’s vantage point, such sounds can be considered “musical” in the broad sense of being controlled patterns that exhibit structure and intent and are organized vertically (texture and layering) and horizontally (over time).

The impulse to find a niche may have also been a driving force of human music. Our forest-dwelling ancestors paid close attention to their native soundscapes, listening for signals in the rich textures of their habitats, finding distinct bandwidths to communicate with one another, and imitating the sounds of other species, both for play and practical purposes (like the hunt) (p. 89). From there, human cultures gradually developed the diverse sounds and sundry uses that comprise what we know as music.

Krause also opens our awareness to the multiplicity of sound sources on our planet. He proposes three distinct categories. The oldest is geophony: natural sounds springing from non-biological phenomena, such as wind, rainfall and bodies of water. All acoustically sensitive animals—including humans—evolved to accommodate the geophony, as “each had to establish a bandwidth in which its clicks, breaths, hisses, roars, songs, or calls could stand out in relation to nonbiological natural sounds” (p. 39). Animal sounds come in two types: biophony, or sounds emanating from nonhuman biological entities; and anthrophony, or human-generated sounds (physiological, controlled, electromechanical and incidental).

One of the implications of Krause’s work is that it can help evaluate the health of a biome. Not only can studying the acoustic community demonstrate the intrusion of foreign elements—i.e., human-made noise and the audible response of native creatures (silence, restlessness or alarm calls)—it can also indicate the diversity and vibrancy of the wildlife, or the absence thereof. Sadly, over a half of the wild habitats Krause has recorded no longer exist due to human encroachment—a reality discerned in part from the silencing of biophonic activity and the rise of anthrophonic noise.

These are but a few of the thought-provoking insights offered in The Great Animal Orchestra, a book enhanced by autobiographical stories, illustrations, online listening samples, and a reading group guide. To quote Jane Goodall, whose recommendation appears on the cover of the paperback edition, “[The book] speaks to us of an ancient music to which so many of us are deaf.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

From Source to Self-Reference

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There was a time in our distant past when sounds emanating from non-human animals were the major source of musical inspiration. Our ancient ancestors were completely absorbed in their wild habitats. Their ears perked at the calls and songs of birds and other animals. They mimicked those sounds in their own voices, adding a human signature to the dense and varied biophonic soundscape. Over time and through waves of experimentation, replication, manipulation and refinement, human sounds developed their own logic and conventions. The sequences became more and more complex and yielded increasingly numerous varieties. Found and handcrafted instruments were added to the acoustic mixture. At some point, probably early on, their efforts came to resemble what we call music: nonlinguistic and conscious control of sound exhibiting structure and intent (a working definition from soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause).

The above hypothesis is consistent with what is known about the development of human culture. Biological evolution does not achieve adaptations by concocting novel mechanisms, but by modifying what is already in place. New skills and behaviors are not the result of radical blueprints, but of re-configuring existing capacities and apparatuses. Quoting neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland, evolution’s modus operandi is “tinkering-opportunistically rather than redesigning-from-scratch.” Likely, then, music is an outgrowth of our biological predispositions for language, sensuality, motor control, dexterity, emotionality and, perhaps most importantly, imitation.

Imitation is the hallmark and foundation of human culture. We innately transmit information and pass on practices from person to person and generation to generation. We learn from, add to, and carry forward this imitative process. Elements are preserved and gradually upgraded, culminating in culture: an assortment of behaviors, customs, skills, methods, standards, norms and expectations.

Cultural evolution occurs at a far quicker pace than biological evolution. Modification of tendencies is much more fluid than the extremely slow process of adaptation that brought about those tendencies. Of course, the speed of change within a society tends to be self-regulated, hinging on things like access to resources and social outlook (conservative, progressive or something in between).

Musically, this helps explain how the urge to add human sounds to the biophony (animal soundscape) developed relatively rapidly from imitation of natural sounds to musical invention. This process occurred in three generalized stages (accounting for thousands of years and inclusive of untold variations): (1) The human capacities for language, emotionality, etc., set the conditions for nonlinguistic sound production; (2) These capacities combined with the inclination to mimic, making environmental sounds the fodder for musical production; (3) Human beings began imitating each other’s music, thereby distancing themselves from nature (in degrees relative to the group’s physical distance from a natural setting).

The third stage has particular relevance for music in the West. As Western culture has separated itself incrementally from the natural world, its music has followed suit. Sounds become further and further detached from organic sources and more and more abstract. The progressive distancing from nature is perceptible in the timeline of musical periods (Early, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, etc.). Instead of drawing inspiration from wild landscapes, we base our music on other music, our instruments on other instruments, our techniques on other techniques.

We have reached a point where musical iterations and innovations occur in an almost purely human domain. True, a few composers have replicated birdsong in Western form or sampled field recordings from native habitats; but these are novelties and not the norm. Western music is millennia removed from its feral origins. It is a self-referential art.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Civilizing Soundscapes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Suggestions of music are present everywhere in nature. The rustling of leaves, the babbling of brooks, the pattering of rain, the howling of wolves, the singing of birds, the chirping of crickets. Such sounds may be the original impetus for human musical creativity. They are not yet compositions, but hints of musical form, whispers of motifs, invitations for sonic expansion. The receptive ear recognizes and collects them. The brain organizes, imitates and embellishes them. The imagination combines them with other tonal elements. They are made into music.

This natural history of music is a dominant narrative in the theoretical literature. Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist, paints a compelling portrait in Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (2011), and Bernie Krause, a prolific archivist of natural soundscapes, shares decades of meticulous research in The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (2012). In addition to tracing musical inclinations to the non-human environment, these and related studies confirm the broader instinct of human beings to turn nature into culture.

Culture is prepared more than it is created. Available materials are manipulated to fit our needs, fashioned to meet our tastes, adapted to serve our ends. In the process, we carve a place for ourselves on the planet and gain a semblance of control over our surroundings. What Claude Lévi-Strauss famously wrote about food preparation applies to all aspects of human civilization: it is the continuous effort of transforming the raw into the cooked. Nature provides, we concoct.

The culinary view of culture is particularly apt when the subject is music. Musicians sometimes call their influences a stew, composers cook up new works, improvisatory players sizzle, musical choices are likened to a buffet. Implicit in these gastronomical comparisons is recognition that, like meals made from scratch, music involves measuring, mixing and preparing ingredients.

Of course, as cultures advance and humanity increasingly separates itself from the untamed world, pure sonic resources are harder to come by. Music becomes less an imitation of nature and more an imitation of other music. But we nevertheless remain susceptible to natural influences. Just as the landscape offers up an array of edible material, so does the soundscape offer audible material waiting to become music. Musical potential is detected in the many-voiced environment; musical possibilities exist in the listener’s mind. The organic substance is harvested, organized and repackaged in endless ways for human expression, reception and appreciation. Sounds are made civilized.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.